Several years ago, my older brother and I were discussing the Star Wars movies. We both felt the original movies were superior, and were trying to figure out what it was that made us feel this way. We came up with a few theories, when he suggested an idea that has stuck with me as having many applications. At the start of the first movie [i], the viewer is immersed in this fantastical world of aliens and mystical forces. At first, the movie follows a stereotypically wide-eyed young character, Luke Skywalker, who was full of wonder and awe at the fantastic things he was seeing.

However, many viewers might not be drawn in by a sense of awe. As Luke marveled at the wonders around him, there was the likelihood that some viewers would be bored. But then George Lucas did something very smart; he paired Luke with a very cynical character, Han Solo. While Luke responded with wonder, Han responded with apathy, nonchalance, and level-headedness. Han Solo provided the cynical perspective for those viewers who needed it to identify with. So those viewers no longer felt at a distance because of their own cynical thoughts. Over the course of the story, however, Han got gradually pulled in and more attached, as did the viewers who identified with him. This is what my brother suggested was missing from the new movies, a cynical character with whom older or more cynical viewers could identify.

The lesson I took from this is the power of giving voice to someone’s doubts or skepticism. If the other person is feeling such doubts, then ignoring those thoughts creates the risk of those doubts becoming more dominant. But if you can acknowledge them, and give a credible answer to them, that can be a very powerful tool for persuasion.

For example, imagine you are telling your friend what you think is the best way to build a table. Now if you simply say it is the best way, she might listen to you, especially if she has a high opinion of your construction skills. On the other hand, your friend may say, “well, you might think that, but I want to try my own way.” Or your friend could point out the drawbacks of your plan. Now, if she is thinking about the drawbacks, and you are simply going on about how your way is the best way, it is unlikely she will use your plan. However, if you acknowledge outright that, yes, your plan has its flaws, and that despite those flaws you still believe it is the best plan, your point becomes more convincing. If you address or answer her criticisms before she even makes them, then she is left with no resistance to your point. You have made her point for her and answered it.

This has an important application when dealing with teenagers. For example, imagine you are trying to convince your teenager of the importance of schoolwork. Your teenager is unconvinced. From his perspective, schoolwork is boring, and has little real world application. Some teenagers I know dictate their choices based more on what is fun or real now, not what might be better down the road. Even those with better forethought believe that most school subjects have little connection to their future.

If you try to avoid and circumvent his doubts about what you are saying, you run several risks. He may reject what you are saying because he has those doubts and you are not responding to them. This could suggest to him that you don’t have an answer to those doubts. If he is the one to raise his questions, it is easy for you to perceive that as questioning your authority. That sets you up to react harshly out of resentment and insecurity, when his questions may be valid. His questions are about your idea that school is important, not about your authority. That is easy to forget in the moment.

Either way, he could perceive your failure to acknowledge his questions as proving your point is somehow less valid and possibly even hypocritical or false. He might lose respect for the point you are trying to make, and the point may be lost in the power struggle with you.

If you speak to his doubts instead of trying to silence or ignore them, there are several potential benefits. He is likely to respect the fact that you can acknowledge the potential shortcomings without letting go of the benefits. You can acknowledge that school work is boring, and that a lot of classes are more about conformity and rule following than they are about education. You can talk about school as a means to an end. You can answer why you still think education is important despite its imperfections. You take the argument out of his mouth. You validate the truths that he knows instead of trying to sweep them under the rug. And you make the discussion about the idea, instead of it being about him listening to you. If you truly believe in your idea, then show him why. Lastly, you model for him how to deal with the fact that life is never ‘black and white,’ that contradictions and ambivalence exist, and how you cope with that.


[i] Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977).

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