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What partisan screamers lack: Ability to change foes' minds

We are living in a time when honest discussion is often drowned out by partisan cheerleading.

More and more, cable TV shows, blogs, radio stations, Web sites and magazines exist to openly advocate a political agenda, ideology, candidate or product. Journalistic institutions are in decline, and many professional reporters are looking for new careers.

As an old reporter who has done his share of railing against this trend, I thought I might try going with the flow, and offer some advice to the legions of advocates who are fast replacing my profession.

So listen up, you partisan bloggers, angry mass e-mailers and assorted media pontificators (I mean you, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter etc.). If your aim is to do something more than to increase your ratings (which, alas, rules out the above list), if your goal is to actually move the world in your desired direction, I have a new word for you: "Persuasion."

It is one thing to blog or broadcast to an eager audience of the like-minded and quite another to address someone who disagrees with you and actually change his mind. The former is easy; the latter is hard. Hard, but not hopeless.

My first encounter with the basics of this lost art was a man of my father's generation who had begun his working life as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. I told him that sounded like a difficult and unpleasant, knocking on doors and trying to sell something most people already had.

"Not at all," he told me, as I recall. "It was a great job. Where's the challenge of standing around the appliance section in a department store, selling to people who have already come in looking to buy? The challenge was turning 'no' into 'yes.' I was good at it, and I learned lessons that have helped me throughout my life."

The quick lessons he offered in salesmanship I later found spelled out in greater detail in the disciplines of classical rhetoric.

Persuasion draws on an understanding of human nature and a facility for empathy, for seeing and understanding how the other guy feels.

The door-to-door pitch my old friend memorized contained the basics. Rule One is to be likable. In political argument this means acknowledging up front whatever truth or strength there is in an opposing point of view. It's there. Smart people disagree with you for a host of reasons, some of them good. Graciously give ground where you can, such as, for Republican diehards, "You know, I'd have to agree that the Bush administration poorly handled that Katrina flooding," or, say, a pro-choice advocate in the abortion debate, who might concede at the outset that ending a pregnancy is a graver matter than having a tooth pulled.

The worst thing you can do is begin with an insult, as do so many of the e-mails I receive after stating an unpopular opinion, those that begin with, to use printable terms, "You are a blithering idiot." You might as well stop writing at that point.

The salesman next would make his pitch. That was the easy part. Next came the inevitable objections: "I just bought a vacuum cleaner," or "I can't afford it." My old friend's company had done an amazingly good job, he said, of preparing him for every conceivable obstacle to the sale.

"It was very rare for a customer to offer a reason not to buy that I could not answer," he said. "If they already had a vacuum cleaner, this one was better. If they couldn't afford it, we had easy payment plans. You name it, whatever objection they raised, I was ready."

This is the hardest lesson for advocates to learn. To persuade, you must anticipate and refute objections. It means exposing your convictions in advance to thorough, skeptical scrutiny. This is a lot harder than making emphatic statements of belief designed, consciously or not, to draw cheers from those already in your camp, which is what passes for political argument for the loudest voices in public debate.

Being persuasive is hard, because it demands you consider, even if only momentarily, for purposes of argument, you might be wrong.

For anything beyond closing the sale of a vacuum cleaner, it requires broadening your mind. To refute opposing points of view capably (and winningly) means you must first be willing to listen to them. To really hear opposing points of view, you must make yourself open to them.

There's a catch here. Sometimes you might find that after really "hearing an opposing viewpoint, you can't refute it. Then you must do the unthinkable: Change our own mind. Grow.

Bowden is a journalist and author, most recently of "The Best Game Ever." He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer; e-mail: mbowden@phillynews.com.McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

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