Benjamin Franklin said he learned how to persuade from Socrates. Early on, he employed the Socractic technique instrumentally and aggressively.
“I took delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.” [from Franklin’s ‘Autobiography,’ quoted in ‘Quirky’, by Melissa Schilling, 2018, p. 126*]
Franklin gradually grew out of that phase. Over time he developed “the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words ‘certainly’, ‘undoubtedly’, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, ‘I conceive’ or ‘apprehend’ a thing to be so and so; ‘it appears to me’, or ‘I should think it’ so or so, for such and such reasons.”
In other words, he expressed his strong beliefs in humble, deferential, language.
“This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting…”
Benjamin Franklin, of course, enjoyed a legendary carreer as a diplomat, and in his lifetime was probably the best known person in the known world (after a few kings). As the author of ‘Quirky’ points out, Franklin also successfully persuaded folks to adopt social innovations like street lighting and sweeping programs, the volunteer fire department, neighborhood watch groups, a citizens’ militia, and America’s first public lending library.
You may also recall that Franklin was no pushover, and his sharp wit was well known. Yet he chose, for the sake of his causes, to defer to his opponents with humility.
Instead of using language calculated to incite and provoke, he used words designed to invite and persuade.
Neither Franklin nor Socrates invented these methods. They are as old as humanity, yet still rarely employed.
Some may object that such deference represents false humility and is, therefore, dishonest and immoral. If you really believe something to be true, the thinking goes, you should state it in “words as hard as canonballs,” to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson from his essay, ‘On Self-Reliance‘. One might argue that to employ humility to suggest doubt where none exists, constitutes dishonesty.
But that’s not the kind of humility I suggest.
WinSome humility acknowledges that man is finite, and lacks omniscience. Since you and I are among those creatures, we remain perpetually-open to learning new facts and ideas. And we avoid offending someone else while he considers the virtues of our ideas.
There’s nothing dishonest about this kind of humility. It’s an expression of grace, respect and love, anchored in accurate self-assessment.
Ben Franklin composed a list of 13 “virtues of life” to guide his daily conduct. Number 13 was, “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
You might recall that the Scriptures say that Jesus, though “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8 ESV)
If the creator, and Lord of the universe — not to mention Ben Franklin — can humble himself, don’t I have much more reason to do so?
Franklin also published a newspaper, but would refuse submissions from writers that he thought might be libelous or abusive. Today’s political networks and pundits would do well to emulate his strategy. It’s what WinSome is all about.
It might be noted that Old Ben never felt triumphant about his 13th virtue. In fact, he added ‘humility’ to the list late when friends suggested he had a reputation of being proud. He struggled with this throughout life.
“In reality, there is, perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history [his ‘Autobiography’]; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humlity.”
Pride is the sin that drove humanity from paradise. We thought we might equal God, knowing all.
Yet, when God in Christ walked among us, most of what he said came in the form of stories that allowed us to consider his way and contrast it with our own ways, without raising our proud defenses.
Christ could merely have commanded. As God, he had every right. Instead, he tended to invite us to consider our ways, and he offered hope of a better, more abundant way, consistent with the righteousness of God.
That’s not to say that he completely refrained from speaking truth “in words as hard as canonballs,” but in the Gospels, you’ll notice that when Jesus does this, he typically “punches up.” In other words, he goes after the officials who have burdened people with rules and regulations, but have not lifted a finger to help the poor, sick and needy. On the other hand, when faced with flagrant sinners who were not among the power elite, his pattern was to set them free, and to urge them to “go and sin no more.”
Whether you believe in Jesus as God or not — and Franklin often characterized himself as a mere Deist — the Biblical example of a God-man who walks in humility among us provides a good model for those of us who are somewhat less than Divine.
In purely natural terms, your humility serves to discourage the other person from raising his defenses. You don’t seem like a threat. Your humility allows him to consider your ideas without losing face.
There’s an old sales technique called the feel-felt-found formula. When someone raises an objection, rather than batting it down, you follow this pattern.
- I understand how you feel.
- I felt that way myself once (or I know some folks who felt that way).
- But when I (they) fully explored this idea, I (they) found that…”
This is followed by the benefits of the idea.
This is not only a humble way of making your case. It’s thoughtful and practical.
- Connect with the other person.
- Show that you can see things through his eyes.
- Then lead him to consider another perspective.
* Schilling drew her Franklin quotes from ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’, ed. Charles W. Eliot (1791; repr., New York, Tribeca, 2013)