If you want to persuade someone: validate them, don’t correct them

The final aspect of Blair Warren’s book, The One Sentence Persuasion Course, I have chosen to write about is a new insight that he added to the updated version.

On top of recommending that the most effective way to persuade people is to encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help them throw rocks at their enemies, he suggests that you should validate and fascinate people, rather than correcting and convincing them.

We have all had our own experiences of teachers, tutors, and lecturers who won’t identify anything good in what we just said, who immediately dive into pointing out all of the ways in which we were incorrect, followed by trying to convince us of some other/their perspective. If, like me, you found this to be particularly annoying, then I am assuming that you have also spent a lot of time trying not to do what they did to other people.

When I taught guitar and violin, one of my most common comments to my students was: “a good start, now let’s make it even better.” No matter how messy their first attempt at playing something was, it was still better than all of the people who never tried, or all of those who quit when it became difficult. A little bit of validation used to go a long way toward keeping my students focused and motivated.

When I started teaching at university, I had to go beyond this general approach and positively acknowledge a specific thing that someone had said, or written, even if it was small in comparison to what I was aiming for the class as a whole to achieve. A little bit of validation always successfully primed the pump for hard work and open minds.

And then I discovered Carol Dweck’s work on Fixed and Growth Mindsets, which makes it clear that there are significant benefits to be gained by praising effort, as well as praising what people have already achieved. Famously, Dweck has introduced the idea of “not yet” to millions of people: you have not yet accomplished everything you need to do to move on to the next level, but you are now closer to where you want to be.

Between my own experience of being taught and teaching, and then listening to Carol Dweck, I had worked out the positive significance of validation when teaching, but it was only when I listened to Blair Warren that I directly contrasted validation with correction. Correction only works as a part of persuasion if it comes after some form of validation, and if it is pitched as something that builds on an acknowledged positive. In short, don’t suggest a correction: suggest something that will make it even better.

Successfully validating people depends on keeping the Self-Serving Bias in mind: if something good happens to me, it is because I am talented and made it happen, but if something bad happens to me, it is because other people and the world are uncaring, or cruel. If something good happens to someone else, it is because they were lucky, but if something bad happens to them, it is because they aren’t sufficiently talented, or aware. You need to validate their personal successes, and help them to overcome difficult circumstances, without inferring that you are more capable than they are.

Making sense of how to fascinate, rather than correct, is more difficult than recognising the contrast between validation and correction. Fascinating people implies that we have to be fascinating, but, thankfully, this is not the case.

As I reflected on my years of teaching, I recognised that I did one consistent thing that kept my students engaged: I told stories about people making difficult decisions in the midst of uncertain circumstances. I wasn’t fascinating, but how people make decisions in difficult situations is fascinating. Fascinating people depends on telling stories about people your audience can identify with and care about. If your audience care about the characters in your stories, then they can be persuaded by what you have to say about the circumstances you are describing.

It is easy to fall into the habit of correcting and convincing, because so many people who think they are right believe this is the way to get what they want. Despite their belief, the evidence and analysis point the other way. Aim to validate and fascinate people whenever you can, so that they are more likely to listen to (and act on) what you have to say. Persuasion is not about being right, it is about validating that someone is already on the right track. People want to hear about how they can do even better, and they are fascinated by stories of people succeeding in difficult circumstances.

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