Recovering the Art of Persuasion
When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a person from a different worldview perspective?
“Of all things that human beings do,” Mortimer Adler once observed, “conversing with one another is the most characteristically human.” Unfortunately, in our day, we no longer have many opportunities for meaningful conversations. Virtual conversations abound—we watch talking heads on television or listen to people debate the issues of the day via talk radio or the internet—but how often do any of us really get the chance to discuss the truly important things in life? Too often, when we do have the opportunity for actual face-to-face interaction, we steer away from politics and religion, since we know those conversations often produce more heat than light. And as a result, small talk rules the day.
When media professionals end up having important conversations for us, they typically do so in brief segments, frequently interrupted by advertisements. Advocates of various positions are chosen to make segments more compelling, and the more fireworks the better! This is why we often see guests talking or shouting over each other, and why it’s actually quite rare to encounter genuine listening. The important thing isn’t for parties on either side to better understand one other or to come to any kind of resolution, but simply to make sure they get all their talking points in.
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all been mentored and catechized by these “conversation surrogates.” So when differences of opinion emerge among friends and relatives, it seems natural for us to raise our voices, ridicule the other side, offer caricatures, and throw bombs. We’ve not only lost the art of persuasion, but because this has essentially become the new normal, truly meaningful conversations with people who don’t share our core convictions have in many respects become a thing of the past.
Mattias Desmet recently observed that,
The gradual replacement of real social situations by artificial ones in recent centuries and decades — through the industrialization and mechanization of labor, through the introduction of radio, television, telephone and internet — has taken an insidious toll. It is responsible for the most destructive psychosocial phenomenon of the Enlightenment: it “atomizes” the human being, disconnecting us from our social and natural environment and plunging us into solitude.1
Desmet goes on in his article to suggest that these cultural trends flow in the direction of an ever-increasing totalitarian state.2 So how are we to combat these trends? How can we have meaningful conversations with people from different points of view and entirely different walks of life? Here are a few essential ingredients from the ancient world that can help.
The first thing to recover is caritas. Though you may disagree with someone on an important issue, you should always keep in mind that the person in front of you is a human being who is more valuable than the sum total of his or her ideas (whether good or bad). Caritas is the Latin word for love and benevolence. This charitable posture provides the necessary coolant that keeps the conversation’s engine from overheating. Along with caritas, we also need to recover humilitas. Are you willing to be a learner, or do you just want to get your talking points in? Humility is an essential ingredient for effective listening. It’s a posture that says, “I will submit myself to be taught.” You may or may not agree with a position once you’ve learned it, but adopting this posture often prevents you from creating caricatures or resting on false assumptions. Clarity rather than unity is your first concern, since agreement can only be arrived at once all the issues and hidden assumptions have been brought out into the open.
Once you commit yourself to a posture of “caritas et humilitas,” you should attempt, as best you can, to see the world from your conversation partner’s perspective. Since words are the conveyors of ideas, you need to pay special attention to the language and vocabulary of opposing points of view, being careful not to dismiss anyone’s perspective simply because it is different from your own (a posture of this kind is liable to keep you trapped in a prison of your own making). Next, you should spend some time thinking through the implications of these words and ideas. Once the subject matter has been clarified by careful listening and a variety of questions, then, and only then, should you consider formulating a thoughtful response.
Aristotle argues that there are three essential ingredients of effective rhetoric: logos, pathos, and ethos. The substance of your argument is the logos. It’s a thesis statement such as “God exists,” or “nature is all there is,” along with the reasons you offer in support of such claims. Pathos has to do with the passion with which you communicate your ideas. In other words, often it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Though the facts may be on your side, if you find yourself droning on and on in a monotone voice or, on the other extreme, raising your voice and pounding your fist on the table, over time you may discover that people end up tuning you out or changing the subject whenever you begin to monologue.
Finally, ethos has to do with your own character. Do you have a reputation as an honest and reliable person? Can you be trusted, or do you have a history of bending the truth to fit your agenda? As a rule, if others have good reasons not to trust you in general, the more difficult it will be for them to trust anything you say in particular. This is what led Aristotle to argue that ethos was “almost as important” as logos.
The Bible’s ancient wisdom is also particularly relevant here. For example, Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies” which only end up breeding quarrels. “The Lord’s servant,” he says “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2Tim 2:22-25). Paul, of course, practiced what he preached. Throughout the book of Acts, we find him continually engaged in meaningful conversations as he traveled from town to town. And whether at a local synagogue or the public marketplace, we frequently find him reasoning with opponents and attempting to persuade them that Jesus really was (and is) the promised Messiah (Acts 17:16-34, 18:4, 19:8, 26, 26:24-29).
I’m convinced that today’s churches need to rethink almost everything they’re doing. Though we happen to have the greatest story ever told, somehow the world seems to be doing a better job at making disciples. So rather than complaining about this sad state of affairs, I believe churches need to work hard to address this crisis. They should not only teach people what to believe and why to believe it, but they also need to begin equipping today’s church-goers with the tools that will enable them to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Finally, in our media-saturated culture, churches should give much more thought to hosting more meaningful face-to-face conversations—perhaps even with people from other denominations and religious traditions.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was a co-founder of the White Horse Inn which he also hosted from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 edition of Modern Reformation magazine.
For Further Reading
The Story of Us, by Shane Rosenthal
How to Speak, How to Listen, Mortimer Adler
Tactics, by Greg Koukl
For Further Listening
The Humble Skeptic, Ep. 22: “Power or Persuasion?”
The Humble Skeptic, Ep. 21: “Questioning Your Faith”
White Horse Inn, Ep. 1508 featuring Greg Koukl, “Walking in Wisdom with Outsiders”
On this point, see also Hanna Arendt’s classic book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
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