The Persuasion Paradox (How winning sometimes takes letting go of winning)

Must... Win... At... All... Costs!!! Photo credit: Kat Gloor via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Must... Win... At... All... Costs!!!

Photo credit: Kat Gloor via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

To make an impact, we've got to let go of winning.

That might sound odd, especially for anyone going to protests, or working on an advocacy or electoral campaign. It might sound near impossible if you're in the heat of a contentious campaign.  

And to be clear, I’m not advocating that we as progressives stop being serious about change. We've got to keep asking ourselves the tough questions: How will our efforts make a difference? Are we making progress? How can we do better? I want change too, and these questions are essential.

And so is your capacity to lead and inspire. 

That's why I’m talking about how to more powerfully connect and persuade those around you -- to take a resonant stand -- through a practice of letting go. 

The problem with “we can't lose”

We are in a unique political moment where we have an abundance of role models for what it means to take a resonant stand for racial justice. These are people whose courage, love, passion and heart inspire us to speak out too. 

But in much of the country, we still struggle to speak to each other honestly about things that matter. We are deeply divided, and mistrust runs deep.

And when I find myself mired in that deep divide, all I can see is winning vs. losing.

We can’t let them win. We can’t lose. There is too much at stake.

And I know that can be energizing in the short term. But it’s also the start of tunnel vision and burn out. 

When I'm in that place, I forget my empowerment: my individual capacity to make a difference, regardless of what others do. And I lose contact with what draws me to this work in the first place: the love, truth, and justice that’s in my heart.  

And so my ability to connect with others, persuade, and make a difference, diminishes.  

This is what I call the “persuasion paradox”:

The more singularly focused we are on convincing or persuading, the less effective we become as messengers for our values.

Take, for instance, our culture around public discourse. Sometimes a healthy debate is exactly what’s called for. But a look at political squabbles on Facebook, cable news, and maybe that last political “discussion” that ruined dinner -- and it’s clear that most of the time, the debates we engage in are not that healthy. And the more we try to convince people they are wrong, the less inclined they are to listen to us.

It’s one reason so many people shy away from political discourse. And it’s emotionally draining for those of us who do engage. This is a challenge we all need to face, if we are to find the strength to engage with the vigor and longevity that social change requires.

So here’s the flip-side of the persuasion paradox:

When you let go of trying to convince anyone of anything, you are free to speak and do what you feel needs to be said and done. Your ability to listen and learn from those around you deepens. Your words and actions resonate with authenticity and integrity. And right there is your power to make an impact.

And that’s the power and beauty of taking a stand. It’s not about winning or losing a debate. You just do it.

After all, the moment we are in doesn’t call for debate. We’re not here to debate whether someone’s dad should be shot by police for selling CDs while black. We’re not here to debate whether we should issue a ban on Muslims in the US. We’re not here to debate whether LGBT love is legitimate. We’re not here to debate how women should behave, in order to prevent their own rapes and murders.

We are in fact called here to stand true. To represent, by our example, the brave, honest and loving world we want to leave to the next generation.

Gaining our ground

Imagine yourself in a tug of war. The harder you pull, the harder your opponent pulls. When you dig your feet into the soil, so do they. When you call your reinforcements, they call theirs. Your back strains, your arms shake.

Now, imagine yourself letting go of the rope. What happens?

Yes, you’ve just sent your opponents flying. But that’s not the point! What’s just happened to you? To your sense of balance? To your point of view? To your ability to listen to others? To your sense of possibility?

Now it’s just you, the ground you stand on, and your freedom to choose your next move. What do you do?

Once, when I was 17...

...I got into an argument with a teacher. He declared that the arts were useless, and that the state should focus its education funding on math and science.

As an artist who struggled academically, I felt insulted and threatened, and I argued with him. My anger gave me the strength to speak up. But I left the exchange shaken and thrown off balance. When I look back, I can see what threw me off.

I found his opinion maddening, and felt it had to change. But no matter how hard I pulled on that rope, there he sat, smugly unmoved. My feet slipped. I felt condescended to, and suddenly my self-respect was on the line.

I remember how powerless I felt to change his mind. And even worse, I thought I needed his respect. But as hard as it is to accept, we don’t control what others think, or the way they feel about us.

I was grasping for something that was ultimately out of my hands.

I lacked confidence, but that didn’t make what I had to say less valuable. And if I had been able to let go of the rope -- his opinions, what he thought about me -- I would have had stronger standing to defend the value of equity in the education system. I might have had more clarity and courage in sharing my personal experience as a student. I might have had the guts to suggest -- with all due respect -- that he remember students like me, the next time he argued for cutting funding for the arts.

That’s why letting go is so powerful. When we stop trying to control something that’s out of our hands, we can more powerfully use what is ours to control: the manner in which we show up for the things we care about.

How to build your capacity to let go, so you can take a resonant stand for what you value.

1) Learn to recognize when you feel off balance. Everyone is unique, but here are some possible signs:

  • What emotions come up for you when you are off balance? Frustration? Anger? Anxiety?
  • Does your stomach twist into knots? Does your heart beat fast? Does your mind race?
  • Do you feel the urge to run away or dominate?
  • Do you notice yourself suddenly being unusually judgmental, or self-righteous?

2) Unpack your definition of “winning.”

Often campaigns and movements have a definition of what it means to “win,” like passing a bill, winning an election, or impacting media coverage. Meanwhile, we as individuals also walk around with our own personal winning scenarios in our heads.

And in high stress environments, it can really mess with your head.

Do I have to change this person's mind, in order to feel ok about this interaction? Do I feel a need to earn their respect? Shame them into submission? Dazzle them with my command of the facts?

These are all interpersonal goals that put the ball -- and therefore the control and power -- in someone else’s court. 

3) Unearth why the stakes feel so high

You might have to dig for it, but ask yourself, “what’s at stake for me, personally?”

Is it my sense of myself as competent? Trustworthy? As someone who belongs here? As a good person?

This is different than asking, “what’s at stake for our movement, our community, or for my family?” In my experience, it’s a mighty thing to be motivated by something bigger than me.  

But an honest and compassionate look at my hidden motivations can help me more powerfully align my stand with my values.

4) Ask, what do I need right now, in order to let go?

Sometimes just asking the question is all you need. And sometimes, we need more.

  • Maybe it’s a conversation with a good friend.
  • Or a 20 minute walk in the fresh air
  • Maybe it’s reading this book
  • Or spending time doing something creative and fun
  • Or reconnecting with a mentor or hero
  • Or, leave a comment on this post, and I’ll see if I can help

5) Reframe your intention in terms of what you have the power to do.

For instance, “I’m going to get her to change her tune,” could become “I’m going to tell her how important this is to me (my community, my movement), and ask her to change her tune.”

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. And what do you need to let go of, so you can stand strong? 

This is the third in a series of posts on the Art of the Stand. The first looked at the power of personal truth, and the second looked at how to talk about tough issues with the people who matter most to you. This one is about how to powerfully connect and persuade through the practice of letting go.