When Seeking to Persuade, Listen First

I know, I don't want to do it either.

Okay guys, take a breath. I'm gonna get a little political here. 2016 is almost over and I have to get a little political, right? But first, let me start a with a pot of spaghetti.

One Sunday over ten years ago when I was cooking noodles, I lifted the pot of boiling pasta and water to carry it to the sink. The pot was cheap—a hand-me-down or a thrift-store buy. The bolt connecting the handle and the pot came loose, and the boiling water spilled on my hand and leg. I screamed. The pain was immediate and intense. I dropped the pot away from my self and ran into the shower. I remember standing in the lukewarm shower, shaking in my powder blue terrycloth track suit, getting soaked, my heart pounding. My boyfriend (now my husband) called 911. All I remember from the ambulance ride was plugging my improv shows and classes to the EMT, who I think was just doing his best to keep me focused on something other than the excruciating amount of pain I was in. Or maybe it was a sign of my already-twisted priorities.

Ever since, I've had a fear of hot water. And I couldn't believe everyone was acting so casually while these third-degree burn machines were quitely bubbling away on their stovetops, or the sadistic waiters flinging hot pots of coffee around a crowded restaurant, pouring over unsuspecting people. Are these people insane? Idiots? I was completely shocked by how dangerous a pot of spaghetti was. And it made me consider other things, too. I was so shocked by my burn, that I started to re-evaluate the safety of my home, car, and neighborhood. For the next few weeks driving on the highway was terrifying. And to this day I won't carry a hot pot across the kitchen. I'd been burned and it left a lasting mark. 

On Election Day, like so many of us, I was shocked as the voting returns came in. The polls didn't predict it. The major newspapers didn't predict it. The cable TV news anchors were stunned just calling the play-by-play. I couldn't believe what was happening. And like any truly shocking situation I've experienced—an unexpected death, a betrayal, a pot of spaghetti—it makes me question my own reality. If this can happen, what else can happen? What else don't I know? If this thing I thought was impossible came true, what else is true? Who are these people I am sharing a country with? Where am I? What year is it?  I was feeling like a visitor in my own country, unfamiliar with the native sentiments and culture. 

Many of my friends on social media saw this shock as a call to action. And I applaud so many who are getting involved in community organizing, donating to the causes they care about, and joining the political process on a local and national scale. But that's not what happened for me. 

For me, I wanted to get quiet. I thought about how persuasive I already thought the campaign was, and how wrong I was about that. If the speeches, debates, articles and videos didn't work, how could these people be convinced of my point of view?! Immediately I thought about the Persuasion Works course I've been teaching with Aden Kirschner Nepom for the last few years, which helps people convince others to join their point of view and take action. In businesses this could be conflict resolution, sales, negotiation, or leadership. But it's just as useful getting your kid to put on their shoes or your friend to show up on time when you hang out.

Usually people's default persuasion strategies are to: talk alot, offer evidence (real or made up,) and point out the problem with the other person's position. This usally leads to polarization: people are even further apart than when they started. More sophisticated persuaders might make emotional appeals and tell stories. But these tactics are often ineffective because they are based on bad information from the start. Our Persuasion Works program helps people build a stronger relationship, get better information, and choose the most convincing techniques. The Persuasion Works program includes these four steps:
  1. Get Present. Get out of your head, thinking about what you want, and get into the moment with the other person.
  2. Blend. Send signals of similarity and reduce differences to increase cooperation. Find what you can agree upon and start there, even if it's just chatting about the weather. 
  3. Listen. Be genuinely curious, ask questions, and truly listen to the answers. This is when you'll get the most useful information to base your persuasion techniques on. 
  4. Persuade. Once you have learned the values and motivations of the other party, only then you can try to persuade. 
Right now, I think I need to listen. I need to understand more and gather more information, especially from people who have different life experiences and beliefs than I do. In many ways the internet has narrowed my world instead of expanding it, and I'm getting bad information in this echo chamber. 

So if you feel like I do, and you’re not sure how to engage with people instead of gathering evidence, formulating arguments and getting into screaming matches (online or in person), maybe treat this moment like an improv scene. Be present and open to joining another person's reality for a few minutes. Be curious about their ideas and emotions and look for the ways they might make sense in that context. Don't try to control things or dominate the dialogue, but instead leave space for them to fill. Listen with the intention of being changed by what the other person says and does. And remember, after the scene or conversation is over, you can retreat safely to your own reality. 

In many ways the improv mind is simliar to the traveler's mind. You don't land in Spain and say, "Hey dinner is at 6pm, not 10pm, people! I'm hungry!" Instead you are curious about local customs and beliefs, not judging them because you know how little you know about their way of life. And their different clothing, food, religion and conversational style doesn't (generally) feel like a personal attack. It feels interesting. And the traveler has fun trying it on for a little while. There is a deep, and temporary commitment to that world. And when I'm feeling like I'm getting in to arguments in my head, dismissing other's outright or just feeling really out of place, I switch in to tourist brain and things get a lot easier and more fun. 

I do want to acknowledge that feeling like I can take time to listen is also a sign of my privilege. I don't feel immediately threatened. I'm not a person of color. I don't think I'll be rounded up and deported, or have my health insurance disappear any time soon. If I was that panicked, I might skip the listening and be ready to fight. And even though I know all these groovy presence and persuasion techniques inside and out, when I feel cornered, my heart pounds as quickly as the next guy and I can barely put two sentences together and I'm in full fight-or-flight mode. 

But I want to be clear that wanting to listen, while looking like giving up, can also be an important step in a longer struggle to persuade others to your point of view. 

And to be honest, I haven't done a lot of reaching out just yet. I'm too tired and too hurt. But I am getting quiet. And hopefully the more I shut up (for now) the better I can listen. 

So after writing a long piece about listening more and talking less, let me tell you one more thing: Happy Holidays, everyone! I am grateful for your personal and professional support. Merlin Works made up of a group of amazing teachers, administraters, performers, students and alumni who fill my heart year after year. My very best to all of you. 


Shana Merlin 
Founder, Merlin Works

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Improv 101: The Spirit of Play
Tuesdays 7:30-10:00 pm | January 10–February 28 | with Shana Merlin​

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 Thursdays 7:30-10:00 pm | January 12–March 2 | with Lacy Alana​

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Second Sunday Holiday Party!

Come celebrate the holidays with Merlin Works at our final Second Sunday of the year! Join us in the Kleberg Theater and lobby for a night full of socializing and improvising. We’ll have a limited number of passes to perform in the jam, and our first-ever lottery show. Check it out:

(6:30 – Show up early if you wanna help us set up)
6:45 – Drinks and catered food in the Kleberg lobby. We’ll have a limited number of free drink tickets. Mark Charbonneau will run a photo booth in the theater!
7:30 – Wander into the theater for improv warm-up games. Pick a number if you want to be in the jam, and put your name in the hat if you’d like to be in the lottery show.
8:00 – Second Sunday All-Play!!
• Act 1: Talking improv jam, hosted by Kevin Miller
• Act 2: Musical improv jam, hosted by Shana Merlin
• Act 3: The Known Wizards lottery show, featuring three randomly-chosen audience members!

Show tickets are $10 if you’re watching, FREE if you’re playing.

I hope we see you there!


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