As you’ve probably heard, a baseball player can get into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, by failing to get a hit two-thirds of the time he comes to the plate. Batting .333 — one hit in three plate appearances — is MVP and Hall of Fame performance.
In other words, a guy who is right about where the pitch is going, and effective at getting the bat there to meet it just a third of the time, is the best of the best. In addition, most baseball players are really good at only one position on the field. Pitchers, as a rule, don’t make good catchers, and catchers don’t do well in the outfield.
Yet, for some reason, those of us who engage in political discussion think we have to be right about everything all of the time. When we express our opinions, we think we’re batting, not just .333, but 1000. We offer up expertise not in some narrow field, but in broad general statements as if we were a utility player who plays all positions equally well.
Being effective at persuasion does not mean you have to be right about everything all of the time.
In fact, one of the most winsome characteristics a person can possess is humility. It’s a gracious acknowledgement that I am finite and flawed.
There are many topics about which I am, frankly, ignorant. In fact, on some of those very topics, I have been known to expound boldly upon my ideas. Back in 2009, at the bloom of the Tea Party movement, suddenly it seemed everyone was talking about the U.S. Constitution — what it says, and what the framers of it meant when they drafted it. To my surprise, even I found myself opining on the Constitution. One day, while delivering a sharp and salient point about what the Constitution says and means, I heard a little voice in my head that said, “What do you really know about the Constitution?”
The answer was obvious: Not much.
That revelation of my yawning ignorance sparked a journey that resulted in creating and narrating a 20-part video series about the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
I took the first step by actually reading the Constitution — something I had not done in years, maybe not at all. Then I began to read The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays in which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay explained the document, and argued for its ratification back in 1787-88. I read one essay each day. After a few weeks, I learned about another collection, dubbed The Anti-Federalist Papers. These were essays written by men who opposed ratification of the Constitution for a variety of reasons. I read one of them each day too. Then I started reading big fat books about the Federal Convention of 1787 at which the document was drafted. I read several dozen scholarly, and popular works about this. Eventually, I pitched an executive producer on the idea of creating a series of short videos about the Constitution. This happened over several years.
But remember, the entire journey started with my recognition of my own ignorance on the subject. If I had not acknowledged my ignorance, I would have robbed myself of a great learning opportunity, and I likely would have gone on spouting opinions backed by little more than hearsay from unreliable sources.
To this day, nearly a decade later, I still love reading about the Constitution and the lives of its framers.
The point of my flashback is to remind myself, and perhaps you, that on some subjects, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. We have not put in the work to learn. We often mouth platitudes we hear from other people as if we had done the primary research to establish our opinions. In reality, most of what most of us know about politics and governance comes from the mainstream media and from a gaggle of social media voices — often mere headlines on opinion pieces. We trust them, and so we repeat them without much further thought or inquiry.
If you wish to persuade others, however, merely mouthing what you hear from others will often back you into corners from which it’s tough to emerge.
It’s okay to have a general set of principles, without a detailed response to every circumstances which might arise under them. In a way, it makes you a better persuader. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t invest some time in studying what you believe — you should. But when you lack confidence you’re more likely to ask questions. It’s like being new on the job. And when you ask questions, you not only learn things, but you understand better how others think. In addition, you compliment another person when you ask her opinion on a matter and about how she came to that opinion.
In the posture of the learner, you don’t have to cast judgment or render and opinion on her opinion. Just listen. Ask. Learn.
In the course of doing so, you’ll allow her to explore her own beliefs, and she’ll develop respect for you. All of this makes you more winsome, and therefore, more likely to persuade.