Ben Franklin on Planting a Better Idea in Someone’s Head

In a post last week, I discussed why it’s a good rhetorical habit to limit the volume of words you use.

Like the mistaking of kindness for weakness that plagues today’s nice guys, there is some element of the human mind that frames lengthy and incessant counter-argument as a position of weakness and insecurity. He who masters pithy, concise (and indirect and ambiguous, I might add) communication commands a stronger image of rhetorical confidence and state control than the bloviating firebrand whose logical appeals may indeed be without equal.

This rule of thumb has actually become an amazingly useful skill both for my game and for life in general: whenever I find myself getting spun up on something or really getting invested in a conversation, whether I am writing or speaking, I make an effort to cut down on the number of words I’m throwing into the mix.

In speaking, I find that consciously slowing down my cadence forces me to limit the volume of facts or rhetoric I am emitting, which has the same effect as cutting out unnecessary written passages.

It’s long been a tenet of the Roissy and Roosh game styles to be laconic and calm in your speech, and well-observed that men can talk themselves out of attraction in the same way a boxer can punch himself out of a match.

The main point was that the more you talk, the more people will think (even subconsciously) that you are dissembling or getting defensive. Vox Day expanded on another angle of the idea:

Another factor here is that simple binary thinkers tend to view multiple reasons as being somehow contradictory even when they reinforce each other. After all, if reason X is correct, then reason Y is at best unnecessary, and therefore to mention it must be indicative of a weakness in X. This is, of course, profoundly stupid, but has a rational foundation in that people who have no case do tend to take the spaghetti approach and throw out everything they can in the hope that something will stick.

(I’ve noticed this with lawyers; the general frame of a lawyer’s training is leveraging the facts in a constant rhetorical negotiation. In truth, they are arguing a frame – “my client is right” – rather than an actual syllogism of facts, and so attempting to logically oppose their endless stream of argument cases is a whack-a-mole of futile exhaustion.)

There is a more effective form of convincing someone; rather than adopting an aggressive pomposity, employ a low-status attitude of asking innocent questions of clarification that in fact compel the questionee to admit the fallacy of their position by their own words. I’m told this is called the “Socratic method” after the Greek philosopher who was known for the technique (and further known for frequent conflict with the moral fashions of his time). The Socratic method has the effect of causing the questionee to “own” their change in opinion rather than having it beaten into them by an aggressive contestant.

It turns out that the celebrated American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was a practitioner

His excellent autobiography discusses the matter at length (hat tip to this post at Crime&Federalism, boldface text is C&F’s):

While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method.

I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a 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.

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only 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; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.

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; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention.

If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

Franklin really gets to the point at the end: if you use an aggressive, bombastic tone, you are likely to trigger a defensive, closed-minded response that hardly serves your aims – unless you desire to argue for its own sake, rather than to impart knowledge and truth.

I noted the same principle in praising Rachel Greenwald’s modest and calm advice to bossy women about how to be more agreeable when dating men (who by and large are not interested in and often actively repulsed by a boss-lady attitude – Greenwald in fact states that in her extensive research, Boss Lady attitude was the number one reason men didn’t call for another date). While nobody wants to be criticized, it’s my experience that Boss Ladies are especially prone to take any kind of disagreement or suggestion as personalized criticism and adopt a defensive demeanor.

C&F makes a lucid connection:

Note that Franklin’s language patterns are similar to NLP [neurolinguistic programming]. “Can you make room for the possibility that x, y, z are true?” is far superior to, “You are wrong for the following three reasons.”


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4 responses to “Ben Franklin on Planting a Better Idea in Someone’s Head

  1. Tilikum

    i think the bigger challenge for myself is caring whatsoever for the opinions of 98% of our drone population (which lets face it, is basic at worst and feral at best) thereby rendering even a conversation, much less an argument, a complete waste of my time or the energy required to speak.

  2. Like a G-6

    I think I’ll leave this here. Relevant to the article…

  3. Ton

    The more words, the more lies. I don’t trust man who talks a lot, makes long arguments etc. There is also something effeminate about it.

  4. Kent

    “Can you make room for the possibility that x, y, z are true?” is far superior to, “You are wrong for the following three reasons.”

    I strongly disagree. I have two acquaintances who are always using language like “can you make room for the possibility…” The first time I heard it I hated it and felt manipulated, and to this day I have the same reaction every time I hear it. It rang false, and was clearly a technique learned in a book or seminar and I hate, hate, hate being “techniqued”. My usual response to such techniques are either tuning the other person out, or responding with sarcasm.

    I vastly prefer, and have much for respect for someone who tells me honestly they think I’m wrong, and why.

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