Before You Can Convince, You Have To Connect

I once watched a libertarian conduct a question and answer session with a group of high school students.

The libertarian began the session by sharing his belief that the federal government should have no role in helping a person who is poor. State governments could help that person if they chose to, but it would be even better for private citizens, charitable organizations, and local communities to band together to help that person instead.

It was clear from the students’ reactions that they had never heard such an idea before, and they didn’t like it. Their questions to the libertarian became increasingly hostile, with one even telling him that she thought he was “selfish.”

The mistake he made that day is a mistake I regularly see spokespersons make—especially those representing ideas or causes.

Audience Disagrees With Speaker

In this case, the libertarian was so intent on explaining his ideology, that he failed to align his message to his audience at all. Imagine how different he would have been perceived had he started his presentation this way:

“How many of you believe that someone who is poor—a man or woman who can’t afford enough food to eat or sufficient medical care—deserves help?

[Show of hands]

“How many of you think the federal government should help? [Show of hands] “How many of you think charities or religious organizations should help?” [Show of hands] “Anyone believe that people in the community should also donate some money?”

“Well, I think we all agree about something. None of us in this room want that poor man or woman to starve to death. Is that a reasonable conclusion?” [Show of hands or head nods]

“There’s also one place I disagree with some of you. I don’t believe that the federal government should help that person, but that the help should come from community groups, charitable organizations, and private citizens. I’d like to spend some time today sharing my views on why I believe that’s so important.”

That introduction would have changed the entire tenor of his talk. By articulating common ground from the start (“None of us in this room want that poor man or woman to starve to death.”), he would have let the students know that they share a similar hope, even if their solutions might differ.

Instead, he forgot to align his views to those of the audience. And because his views seemed so shocking to the students and challenged their belief systems too much, they shut down and closed him out before he had even begun.

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