13 November 2020

Pascal's Thoughts on Persuasion

I read an article recently which brought my attention to a quote, penned around 1660 by mathematician Blaise Pascal. In it, he explains his process of persuasion.

"When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others."

"Thoughts" by Blaise Pascal, #9,10

Although he states that his purpose is to "correct with advantage," what Pascal has outlined is not only a process for persuasion, but one for finding common ground.

His first step is to see the perspective of the person with which you disagree and accept that there is truth to their point of view. This means we have to get past name-calling and demonizing, actually talk to one another, and find out what the other side believes is important. Once you know what that "most important" thing is, we can usually agree that it is at least important.

Pascal's next step is to show them your side, the side where their perspective proves false. Not only must you have empathy, you must invoke it in others. Allow them to talk around your perspective, really get a good look at it, because as Pascal writes, they are "better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered."

This is not novel, it is basic dialogue. It starts with listening and keeping an open mind to what has been said. It requires belief in the basic goodness of the person you are in dialogue with. The benefit is that it may result in one or both of you coming away with a new perspective.

To be successful, recriminations and corrections must be avoided. In pointing out mistakes or flaws, you appeal not to a person's reason, but to their pride. Their ego swells and they dig in their heels so no progress can be made. Instead, show them that from where they stand, they are right, and from where you stand you are also right, so that you may both come away with a new perspective.

No one likes to be wrong, even less to be told so. But sometimes there is more to be seen, and one's pride is not offended by the consideration of new information.

How might you apply this to discussions online? Well, this is why I refrain from using such divisive platforms. If you cannot respect the perspective of the person (or robot) with whom you disagree, you may consider the following proverbs.

"Never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it."

"Never argue with an idiot, people watching may not know the difference."

Until next week,
Peace be with you.

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