Any momentary triumph you think gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion. It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.
Many will view last night’s debate as a national embarrassment. Most, of course, will take their candidate’s side: if one is a Clinton fan, the debate will confirm the position that she is the only choice; and if Trump is your pick you may well have experienced a vicarious rush and excitedness when he threatened to send Clinton to jail.
But was either candidate’s argument truly effective? Would you counsel a workplace manager, employee, or spouse to debate contentious issues this way? Of course not.
This article explores how to persuade others not with argument, but through effectively demonstrating the merits of one’s position. Such a skill is critical in the workplace and beyond.
MICHELANGELO KNEW THE POWER OF DEMONSTRATION OVER ARGUMENT
Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power captures the power of demonstration over argument with the true story of one of the greatest pieces of art ever created — David by Michelangelo:
In 1502, in Florence Italy, an enormous block of marble stood in the works department of the church of Santa Maria Del Fiore. It had once been a magnificent piece of raw stone, but an unskilled sculptor had mistakenly bored a hole thru it where there should have been a figure’s legs, generally mutilating it. Piero Soderini, Florence’s mayor, had contemplated trying to save the block by commissioning Leonardo da Vinci to work on it, or some other master, but had given up because everyone agreed that the stone had been ruined. So, despite the money that had been wasted on it, it gathered dust in the dark halls of the church.
This is where things stood until some Florentine friends of the great Michelangelo decided to write the artist, then living in Rome. He alone, they said, could do something with the marble, which was still magnificent raw material. Michelangelo travelled to Florence, examined the stone, and came to the conclusion that he could in fact carve a fine figure from it, by adapting the pose to the way the rock had been mutilated. Soderini argued that this was a waste of time — nobody could salvage such a disaster — but he finally agreed to let the artist work on it. Michelangelo decided that he would depict a young David, sling in hand.
Weeks later, when Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the statue, Soderini entered the studio. Fancying himself a bit of a connoisseur, he studied the huge work, and told Michelangelo that while he thought it was magnificent, the nose, he judged, was too big. Michelangelo realized that Soderini was standing in a place right under the giant figure and he did not have the proper perspective. Without a word, he gestured for Soderini to follow him up the scaffolding. Reaching the nose, he picked up his chisel, as well as a bit of marble dust that laid on the planks. With Soderini just a few feet below him on the scaffolding, Michelangelo started to tap lightly with a chisel, letting the bits of dust he had gathered in his hand to fall little by little. He actually did nothing to change the nose, but gave every appearance of working on it. After a few minutes he stood aside: “Look at it now.” “I like it better,” replied Soderini, “you’ve made it come alive.”
Michelangelo knew that by changing the shape of the nose he might ruin the entire sculpture. Yet Soderini was a patron who prided himself on his aesthetic judgment. To offend such a man by arguing would not only gain Michelangelo nothing, it would put future commissions in jeopardy. Michelangelo was too clever to argue. His solution was to change Soderini’s perspective (literally bringing him closer to the nose) without making him realize that this was the cause of his misperception.
Fortunately for posterity, Michelangelo found a way to keep the perfection of the statue intact while at the same time making Soderini believe he had improved it. Such is the double power of winning through actions rather than argument. No one is offended, and your point is proven.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF THE RULE
Last night’s debate once again proved that words are a dime a dozen. People are easily offended, often resentful, and rarely change their mindset. As Robert Greene explains:
Everyone knows that in the heat of the argument, we will all say anything to support our cause. We will quote the Bible, refer to unverifiable statistics. Who can be persuaded by bags of air like that? Action and demonstration are much more powerful and meaningful. They are there, before our eyes, for us to see — “Yes, the statue’s nose does just look right.” There are no offensive words, no possibility of misinterpretation. No one can argue with a demonstrated proof. “The truth is generally seen, rarely heard.” Baltasar Gracian.
Win with action and demonstration, not words. By way of example, disciplining an employee with such invectives as they are a “poor performer” or “cannot be trusted” is wholly ineffective to turn the employee’s performance around and, at the same time, will cultivate resentfulness and dissent. At best, you have not helped the situation. At worst, you have created an enemy.
Similarly, do not be deceived when you are on the receiving end of “words.” For example, as an investor, focus on facts, data, and objective metrics rather than vague promises of future success. Otherwise, you will find yourself on the losing end of an investment and without the tools to ask the right questions and obtain real answers.
Who will win the war of words this presidential cycle? I certainly do not know. However, I do know that most of us are better off turning down the volume or turning off the TV and social media. If you do, and want to be entertained by a master at the art of persuasion through demonstration, watch the movie Up in the Air [warning: language]: