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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 11-Oct-15

 


Sunday 11-October-15

Persuading at the edge of provocation

One of the trickiest (in all senses of the word) methods of persuasion is through the use of challenging provocation. In practice it can seem crazy as you insult or annoy the other person as you act in provocative ways, for example strongly criticizing them or directly calling them foolish. Yet, while this can result in angry reaction, it can also lead to them changing their minds.

A key principle is one of arousal, of stimulating the other person, of shaking and confusing them when they do not expect to be shaken. When things happen or are said that we do not expect, we pause and wonder what it means and what we should do next. This is what happens when people say something provocative. Even when our fight-or-flight reaction is triggered, we may later stop and think in ways that we might not otherwise have done.

Everything has a edge, even as that edge can sometimes be hard to find or be different from where you might expect. There is also an edge to what I will accept when others speak to me, beyond which I will fight back, yet around which I can be startled into new thinking. Provocative persuaders are good at detecting that edge and working along it, saying things that are provocative yet just safe enough for them that they can recover without destroying the relationship. People who are regularly provocative also gain some extra leeway once others forgive them for being overly bold, usually because they have already realize that the provocative speaker does not have an unkind or harmful intent.

Donald Trump is a current example of a master of this method. He has said some outrageous things in his bid to become president of the USA. And somehow he seems to get away with it, with his approval rating going up rather than down, as his opponents hope and the political pundits predict. Indeed, few of us would dare say some of the thing he has said, even in trusted company.

Another reason why people get away with provocative talk when others would be castigated is power. Social rules often say 'be nice' and 'don't talk about things that might upset people'. Yet powerful people may deliberately transgress social rules just to make the point that they have enough power to be able to withstand social disapproval. A related effect happens when people with little real power act provocatively and yet people do not call them out as they suspect the speaker has some hidden power. In this way, boldness can be surprisingly effective.


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