How can you persuade someone when you’re weak, powerless, unsure what’s right, and face someone who’s confident, powerful, and who doesn’t listen well? A surprisingly effective and powerful idea can help a lot. It’s called Humble Inquiry.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Don’t try to argue with the other person.
2. Instead, listen well, recap, affirm anything that sounds reasonable, and ask a follow up question about an assertion you think is wrong. Don’t say it’s wrong, simply ask for more information or explanation about it. (“OK, so you’re saying we can make more money by selling at a loss for the next five years. Can you help me understand that better?”)
3. Repeat this process, politely introducing information when appropriate saying you’re confused because the information you’ve heard doesn’t seem to mesh with his/her point. ‘Can you help me here?” (“OK, got it. Thing is, I’m a bit confused now- can you help me? I just read a memo from the CEO saying we need to increase profitability this year. What am I missing here?”)
4. Keep politely pressing the other person to keep the burden of proof (after all, (s)he asserted she knows) until the folly of her point becomes more and more evident. To help it be more evident, recap the other’s line of argument occasionally and note you’re confused. (“Well, I’m not suggesting anything at the moment- I’m just trying to understand the point you made earlier….”)
Doing this can help you politely challenge someone in a none-threatening way even if you don’t know much, aren’t sure what the right answer is, and feel weak in his/her presence. And it can help the other person discover his/her mistake without feeling dis-respected, challenged, or humiliated. This simple approach is a key to success for hostage negotiators, top sales people, teachers, comedians (no kidding), and Nobel Prize winners.