This is an article about how to get what you want in business and in life.
It’s about three similar words, and how emotionally intelligent people recognize subtle differences among them, which helps them become better advocates–leveraging what we might call a “hierarchy of influence.”
The three words are: arguing, persuading and convincing. Here’s how they differ, and why that matters.
A little bit of background
We’ll start by briefly discussing each word’s roots and definition. But remember, our goal is to use the distinctions as a tool, not to get caught up in a debate over etymology.
Basically, you want to be mindful of the differences so as to frame your advocacy-based communications in a way that leads toward your true, desired outcome–instead of getting sidetracked.
So, the definitions and roots. We start with argue. The Merriam-Webster definition includes: “to contend or disagree,” and “to prove or try to prove by giving reasons.” It goes back to the Latin word, argutare: “to prate,” or even “prattle,” which in turn means, “to talk long and idly.”
Next up: persuade: “to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action.” This word comes from Latin as well: persuadere; per, meaning “to completion,” and suadere, meaning “advise.”
Thus, “advise to completion.”
Finally, convince. Its articulated definition is subtly different from “persuade,” so we look at the Latin root: convincere, which mixes con (“with”) and vincere (“conquer”). So, “conquer with.”
Think of related words like “convert,” or “conviction.” In other words, not conquering the person you’re talking with, but instead enlisting them as allies to help you conquer something else.
Again, I don’t want to get too hung up on word origins. Your 9th grade English or Latin teacher might quibble a bit. But, the point of having done this exercise will quickly become clear as we shift to real-world perspectives.
Let’s talk about the first word: arguing. Lawyers often do. In fact, making a case in front of a judge or a jury is literally called, “oral argument.”
For some lawyers, this means making the most forceful case possible, almost regardless of the reception.
Maybe you’ve heard the old legal aphorism: “When you have the facts, pound on the facts. When you have the law, pound on the law. If you don’t have either, pound on the table.”
Why “pound on the table?” Frankly, it’s because the lawyer gets paid by the client, and for some clients, their most deeply felt need is to hear someone advocate forcefully for them — almost more than they sometimes hope for a specific result.
Let’s take it a step further. If you want to compliment a lawyer, you might say he or she makes a “persuasive” argument.
Persuasion is probably the more common, rational, goal in business and life.
You want a juror to vote for you, or you want a customer to buy from you. Maybe you want a salesperson to sweeten a deal, or you want to entice someone to go on a date with you.
You don’t just want the satisfaction of making your case. You want to move someone to do something.
So, how do you go from arguing to persuading? For one thing it’s certainly a more interactive experience. You make your point, you pause, you listen; you might change what you’re going to say next, based on the other person’s reaction.
You hope to stand with them, as we’ve seen the word suggests: advising them all the way through to completion.
And that sounds pretty good. But in our hierarchy of influence, there’s one level higher than arguing and persuading.
That higher level that emotionally intelligent people understand is: “convincing.”
If arguing involves making your case, and persuading involves guiding to action, convincing is about getting someone to embrace that choice so strongly that they’ll make it even when you’re no longer at their side.
Nobody talks about having the courage of your persuasions, right?
It’s the courage of your convictions: your deeply held beliefs.
Let’s bring it back to trial lawyers, since they do so much arguing, persuading and convincing. One trick I learned in my time as a lawyer is to try to lead your audience right up to the line where they have to reach a conclusion — but then have the discipline to stop.
Don’t tell them explicitly what to decide, the theory goes; put them in a position where they have to take the final step.
The idea is that since you won’t be in the room when the judge or jury makes the decision, you want them to feel an emotional conviction to the position they’ve reached.
In other words, you’re not just trying to win an argument. You’re trying to create an advocate.
Let’s take this to the final step, which involves asking yourself seriously what your true goal is as an advocate.
Maybe you don’t really care whether someone agrees with your argument; you’d be fine with them forming the same convictions as you, or taking the action you want them to take, but for entirely different reasons.
I’m reminded of a study a few years back that showed teen girls whose mothers nagged them were more likely to graduate from school and get good jobs, and less likely to become pregnant as teenagers.
As a colleague wrote at the time: “Sure, having a healthy sense of self-esteem and believing that you have options is great, but not getting pregnant just because you ‘don’t want to hear it’ is fine with us, too.”
So let’s circle this back to your advocacy, and what it all has to do with emotional intelligence. Largely, it’s about being very tuned in to your audience, and working to understand how your arguments land on their ears.
I mean, it might be emotionally satisfying simply to argue your case as forcefully as you can. And if that’s truly your goal, fine. No judgment.
But emotionally intelligent people have the discipline required to listen as they speak.
They use tactical silence as they make their case.
They consider what it all looks and sounds like from the other person’s point of view.
They come back to the comparative definitions we’ve explored for these three words.
And if things line up well, and they do it very effectively, they improve the odds of getting the outcome they ultimately hope for.