How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
What We Can Learn About the Art of Persuasion from One Scene in Shakespeare's Richard III
Guest articles > What We Can Learn About the Art of Persuasion from One Scene in Shakespeare's Richard III
by: Tim Handorf
Although I've always been interested in both the study of logic and psychodynamics, I've perhaps learned more about how people generally tend to operate simply from carefully observing others while conversing. Changing Minds has written about the “just listen to other people” tactic before, so I won't rehash that topic. I will say this, however—listening is perhaps the most powerful tool in persuading others, simply because you need to understand your opponent's perspective in order to speak to them on their terms. That is the key to good conversation and subsequent conversion. Everything else is just decoration.
Okay. Simple. But I'm going to take this one step further, and in so doing, counter the idea of progressive disclosure based on my experiences and an unlikely source—one absolutely brilliant scene from Billy Shakespeare's play, Richard III. Of course, progressive disclosure, the idea that one should not dump too much emotional baggage on a conversation partner if she isn't yet ready for it, is perfectly valid. No one wants to be that person who becomes an inadvertent psychologist.
What I'm suggesting, however, is something slightly different. Once you've established a fairly good rapport with whomever it is you are speaking, consider the advantages of making yourself vulnerable. In my experience, whenever I tell my opponent personal stories of an unsettling nature in a humble, humorous way (I.e. whenever, I'm open about my mistakes and weaknesses), I win the person's trust almost immediately. What follows is almost as predictable as a sitcom's plot. The person will expose themselves in a similar way, and, as a matter of course, they demonstrate to me how it is they think on a deeper level, simply because it is the way that a person has dealt with her hardships that reveals the most about her character and worldview.
I had used this tactic, more or less subconsciously, for awhile. But then when I read Richard III, I realized how it is that this strategy actually operates. Granted, it is dramatized to an extreme level, but if you know anything about good ol' Shakespeare, you know that he had an uncanny ability to get to the bottom of the human psyche.
In the one scene to which I am referring, Richard of Gloucester attempts to seduce Lady Anne after killing her husband. That's right—murdering her own spouse in cold blood. And what's more, she knows it. And she knows that he knows it. Most horrifyingly of all, the body of Anne's husband is right in the same room with them.
Richard's approach is incredibly clever. Of course, he flatters and flirts, and of course, he demonstrates at least a modicum of penitence about his deeds. But, as I see it, what wins Lady Anne over in the end is his vulnerability. Throughout the play, Richard is surprisingly open and frank about his physical deformities (he's basically an ugly, handicapped hunchback). In this particular scene, Richard gets on his knees and even asks Anne to stab him, or if not, he resolves to do it himself. While these are all simply premeditated histrionics, they work. And they wouldn't work if Richard did not expose himself as such. Ian McKellen does an excellent portrayal of Richard in Richard Loncraine's movie adaptation--he physically demonstrates how exposure works in the art of persuasion.
So next time you want to win someone over (either for romantic purposes or simply for the sake of argument), expose yourself. Leave no sordid, ugly detail hidden. As long as you are calm and confident about your past, your conversation partner will be inspired to do the same thing. Afterward, arguments become easier to reckon with. Sharing of a personal nature will enable you to figure out how it is that their minds work, but only after listening carefully. And then you can go in for the kill.
Contributor: Tim Handorf
Published here on: 23-May-10