What can Trump and Brexit teach us about persuasion (Part 1)

Image: Gage Skidmore

Image: Gage Skidmore

If people are not listening to you as individuals, it’s always good to get together and make a stand for something.
— Tinie Tempah

As the world reels at the second big shock in 2016, Donald Trump elected as President of the USA, after the UK voted for Brexit. What can we learn about persuasion? So many polls, so many authorities got both events wrong.

We might be tempted to believe as Richard Thaler, Professor of Behavioural Science & Economics said after Trump won, ”This is …a defeat for science and expertise.” No, this is not a defeat for logic. Logic could never win; this is a win for emotion.

Looking at Trump and Brexit, what they have in common is a big vote from people who were scared or angry. Just think back to a time when you were scared or angry, how persuasive were arguments of logic?   Were you persuaded by “the reasons for that are”… or “those facts are not true”…”this is fair because”… when we are scared or angry, most of us do not listen.  And what makes it worse for us is when we think other people are not listening to us.  We get more frustrated and think: I will show them! Choosing how to act reduces our feeling of powerlessness.

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness
— Chip Conley

A colleague of ours, Psychologist Peter Sullivan often explains the power of emotion by splitting the word into e-motion.  Emotions have the power to put us in motion, to move us: to motivate us.  In our opinion, for Trump and Brexit a large group of people were scared or angry and the more that experts told them they could not possibly vote for Trump or Brexit, then the more determined they became to vote for Trump or Brexit! No arguments and no logic would change their minds.

How do we persuade people feeling strong emotions?

When people feel strong emotions — scared, angry or sad — they will not be persuaded by logic. So, how do you persuade them?

Start by listening to them. If they believe you are not listening then their emotions will get stronger, and they will be more committed to act.

So, it’s that simple? Just start listening? Yes, but they need to see that you are genuinely listening to understand their point of view. Not just listening to find a gap to speak about your logical argument that proves they are wrong.   

There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.
— Simon Sinek

Real listening means being able to give a summary, to summarise what you think the speaker feels. You can say you do not agree with them, but you must be able to summarise what they feel well. So that after your summary when you ask, do I understand your frustrations they say: “yes you do”.

If they say no, you must ask them to explain what you have missed and then say let me try and summarise again. You must keep doing this until they say: “yes you do understand”.

If you can get the speaker to say yes at the end of a summary, then you may see some physical clues as they relax a little.  I have seen many people relax their shoulders as they think: “At least he understands what we want!”

Until the emotional speaker says —at least he understands what we are saying— they will never respond to your logic.

Perhaps, Senator Bernie Sanders writing on the day after the election now understands the power of emotion.

Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids - all while the very rich become much richer.
— Senator Bernie Sanders

We suspect these are some of the thoughts that motivated so many American voters and also that so many voters felt the only politician who really listened to them was Trump. 

Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.
— Jane Goodall

In 2017, there are elections across Europe, unless politicians can learn how to persuade people who have strong emotions, then we will see more votes by scared and angry people.

So, in business when faced with customers or employees with high emotions, don’t reach for logic – just listen! In a later blog, we will explore the next steps in persuasion after you really listen, and understand.