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Looking to persuade someone? Start with respect. dusanpetkovic/iStock via Getty Images Plus

As humans, we all want self-respect – and keeping that in mind might be the missing ingredient when you try to change someone’s mind

Why is persuasion so hard, even when you have facts on your side?

As a philosopher, I’m especially interested in persuasion – not just how to convince someone, but how to do it ethically, without manipulation. I’ve found that one of the deepest insights comes from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a focus of my research, who was born 300 years ago: April 22, 1724.

In his final book on ethics, “The Doctrine of Virtue,” Kant writes that each of us has a certain duty when we try to correct others’ beliefs. If we think they’re mistaken, we shouldn’t dismiss them as “absurdities” or “poor judgment,” he says, but must suppose that their views “contain some truth.”

What Kant is describing might sound like humility – just recognizing that other people often know things we don’t. But it goes beyond that.

This moral duty to find truth in others’ mistakes is based on helping the other person “preserve his respect for his own understanding,” Kant claims. In other words, even when we encounter obviously false points of view, morality calls on us to help the person we’re talking to maintain their self-respect – to find something reasonable in their views.

This advice can come across as patronizing, as though we were supposed to treat other adults like children with fragile egos. But I think Kant is onto something important here, and contemporary psychology can help us see it.

The need for respect

Imagine that you had to postpone lunch because of a meeting. With only 15 minutes to spare and a growling stomach, you leave to get a burrito.

On your way, however, you run into a colleague. “I’m glad to see you,” they say. “I’m hoping to change your mind about something from the meeting.”

In that scenario, your colleague has little chance of persuading you. Why? Well, you need food, and they’re getting in the way of you satisfying that need.

As psychologists of persuasion have long recognized, a key factor in persuasion is attention, and people don’t attend to persuasive arguments when they have more pressing needs – especially hunger, sleep and safety. But less obvious needs can also make people unpersuadable.

A brunette woman in glasses peeks around a wall of an office, looking at the photographer.
No, I really don’t to hear your ‘quick idea’ – not until I have some food in me, anyway. Jose Luis Pelaez/Stone via Getty Images

One that has received a lot of attention in recent decades is the need for social belonging.

The psychologist Dan Kahan gives the example of somebody who, like everyone in their community, incorrectly denies the existence of climate change. If that person publicly corrected their beliefs, they might be ostracized from friends and family. In that case, Kahan suggests, it can be “perfectly rational” for them to simply ignore the scientific evidence about an issue that they can’t directly affect, in order to satisfy their social need for connection.

This means that a respectful persuader needs to take into account others’ need for social dignity, such as by avoiding public settings when discussing topics that might be sensitive or taboo.

… and self-respect

Yet external needs, like hunger or social acceptance, aren’t the only ones that get in the way of persuasion. In a classic 1988 article on self-affirmation, the psychologist Claude Steele argued that our desire to maintain some “self-regard” as a good, competent person profoundly shapes psychology.

In more philosophical terms: People have a need for self-respect. This can explain why, for instance, students sometimes blame low grades on bad luck and difficult material, but explain high grades in terms of their own ability and effort.

Steele’s approach has yielded some surprising results. For example, one study invited female students to write down values that were important to them – an exercise in self-affirmation. Afterward, many students who had done this exercise earned higher grades in a physics course, particularly girls who had previously performed worse than male students.

That study and many others illustrate how bolstering someone’s self-esteem can equip them to tackle intellectual challenges, including challenges to their personal beliefs.

With that in mind, let’s turn back to Kant.

Politics are personal

Recall Kant’s claim: When we encounter somebody with false beliefs, even absurdly false ones, we must help them preserve their respect for their own understanding by acknowledging some element of truth in their judgments. That truth could be a fact we’d overlooked, or an important experience they’d had.

Kant isn’t just talking about being humble or polite. He directs attention to a real need that people have – a need that persuaders have to recognize if they want to get a fair hearing.

For example, say that you want to change your cousin’s mind about whom to support in the 2024 election. You come equipped with well-crafted evidence and carefully choose a good moment for a one-on-one talk.

Despite all that, your chances will be slim if you ignore your cousin’s need for self-respect. In a country as polarized as the U.S. is today, an argument about whom to vote for can feel like a direct attack on someone’s competence and moral decency.

A man with a beard looks into space as a blurred-out woman seated at the same table speaks to him.
In today’s climate, political conversations can feel like attacks on your character, not the politician’s. Goran 13/iStock via Getty Images

So providing somebody with evidence that they should change their views can run headfirst into their need for self-respect – our human need to see ourselves as intelligent and good.

Moral maturity

Persuasion, in other words, takes a lot of juggling: In addition to making strong persuasive arguments, a persuader also has to avoid threatening the other person’s need for self-respect.

Actual juggling would be a lot easier if we could slow down the objects. That’s why juggling on the Moon would be about twice as easy as on Earth, thanks to the Moon’s lower gravity.

When it comes to persuasion, though, we can slow things down by pacing the conversation, opening up time to learn something from the other person in return. This signals that you take them seriously – and that can bolster their self-esteem.

To be ethical, this openness to learning must be sincere. But that’s not hard: On most topics, each of us have limited experience. For example, perhaps Donald Trump or Joe Biden validated some of your cousin’s frustrations about their local government, in ways you couldn’t have guessed.

This approach has an important benefit to you as well: helping you preserve your own self-respect. After all, approaching others with humility shows moral maturity. Recognizing others’ need for self-respect can not only help you persuade someone, but persuade in ways you can feel proud of.

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