Consider the Alternative

Before he became a politician, Abraham Lincoln built his local fame as an attorney, story-teller, and debater.

As a lawyer, Lincoln studied his opponent’s case so thoroughly that he could make that case better than the other attorney could. He gained renown for his honesty, and for his winsome spirit.

By studying the other side, ‘Honest Abe’ could effectively rebut his opponent’s case. Juries and judges could see that he was in full command of the facts. Taking this concept even further, Lincoln would assiduously avoid mischaracterizing the opponent’s case, giving full weight to legitimate arguments, and acknowledging where his case was weak. In other words, he didn’t attempt to win with bluster, but with truth and grace.

The effectiveness of this kind of persuasion has not faded with the passing of a century and a half.

People smell a lack of authenticity like the proverbial dog smells fear. They know, intuitively, when you don’t have the facts on your side, or when you substitute bluster for data.

WinSome strategy calls for careful, authentic consideration of the other person’s case. This is not a mere tactic, but actual wisdom. It’s not a call to simply listen in order to refute, but rather to listen to learn.

To persuade effectively, one must be persuaded. If your views stand on one leg alone, because you have never considered the other possibilities, then your efforts will ultimately fail.

If you actually listen to learn, you have to be prepared for the possibility that your own mind might change on a particular point, or perhaps on the entire issue.

While that sounds scary, it’s actually at the core of speaking the truth.

I have confidence in my views on a wide range of subjects, and I’m always open to new information, or ideas I’ve not yet considered fully or fairly.

“Wait a minute, Scott Ott! Are you suggesting that in order to persuade others of what I believe I must be open to the possibility that they could persuade me instead?”

Yes. That’s why it’s called dialogue rather than monologue. 

Political, philosophical and theological dialogue is not a mere parlor game indulged by witty contestants. The issues discussed affect the well-being of one’s self and of others. These ideas run to the essence of life.

An intelligent, authentic person must engage in such discussions with a devotion to the truth that supersedes preconceived notions. If you’re not willing to be persuaded by truth and facts, then you’re not really engaging in dialogue.

Am I afraid that I might get into a discussion on some important topic and find myself transitioning to the other side?


I’m not afraid of using my mind for legitimate inquiry, nor of acknowledging my own finite capabilities. I know I’m not right about everything all of the time, but I want to be. The only way to get there is to keep listening and learning.

To be fully persuaded of my own position on an issue or question, I must legitimately consider the alternatives, give those arguments their full weight, avoid mischaracterizing or caricaturing them. I must never close the door to the possibility that I’m wrong.

If my views are correct, then there is no fear in this approach. It will merely reinforce what I already believe – perhaps even more strongly than before.

If my views are questionable, or wrong, then there is no fear in this approach. After all, I certainly would not want to hold views that could not withstand scrutiny, or that tottered on flimsy evidence or dodgy reasoning.

Of course, there are many issues upon which reasonable, fair-minded people may disagree. Often there’s wide agreement on a problem, and even the cause of it, but disagreement on the solution.

These kinds of discussions call for humility. When I’m arguing for an approach that has not yet been taken, but which I think would be effective, I should not speak as if its efficacy is a foregone conclusion, nor imply anyone who disagrees with me is stupid, crazy or evil.

Much of what passes for public discourse falls into this category. Instead of debating a thesis that lacks definitive proof, we should be engaged in prototyping and experimentation. Legitimate testing of alternatives would prove much more fruitful than endless arguments over disputable matters of opinion.

Many topics that spark arguments in the realm of politics and governance have to do more with the approach to problems. These are arguments that come from each sides’ perspective on the nature of humanity and on the proper role of government. But instead of exploring these factors, we tend to jump right to the talking points — monologue — and we shut down actual dialogue. 

One side says fairness and justice demands that the federal government should do something.

The other side says that individual liberty and republican governance demands that the decision of whether and what to do should be made as close to the problem as possible, reverting to the federal level as a last resort only.

Both sides would do well to start with agreement on the nature of the problem, and acknowledge that there are a variety of approaches that might prove effective in solving it. Nobody needs to be stupid, crazy or evil. Both sides can be smart, sane and rational – even compassionate – while recommending a favored approach. But the reality is that until we put the ideas to the test, preferably with small, quick, prototypes, we’re all just arguing philosophy while the problem gets worse, and real people continue to suffer.

To consider the alternatives is merely a way of saying, be persuaded before you attempt to persuade others, and always be open to new information that might change your perspective.

If we seek to speak the truth, we always remain open to its influence on our own ideas.