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  • Writer's pictureDarcy Nicolle

Persuading By Not Winning the Argument

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Winning the argument is not helpful for persuasion. Once, I looked on in horror as a businessman angrily berated a parliamentarian for passing environmental laws that were “destroying markets and jobs.” Adding that parliamentarians should stop making ‘green’ laws altogether as they “knew nothing about the real world!”.

Unsurprisingly, he failed to win the argument, persuaded no one and the meeting was a disaster.

An extreme example for sure, but it illustrates the importance of three key ingredients in the art of persuasion –

  1. That surprising as it sounds, the aim is not to win the argument

  2. Understand the values and motivations of decision makers you meet

  3. Empathy - and our businessman had the empathy of a charging rhino...


If you want to persuade someone to agree with you, winning the argument to prove you are right and they are wrong, does not help you. If you lose the argument, you have gained nothing and lost influence; and if you win, the politician will be resentful and in no mood to help you. Either way, you lose.

A lot of the language of lobbying and politics is warlike – ‘campaigns’, ‘tactics’, ‘strategies’ and ‘political fights’. Added to this, the stakes for those doing the lobbying – in money, jobs and profits - are significant, so emotions can run high. Adding that the basic reason why you are spending time talking to politicians is probably because you were not happy in the first place.

A powerful, emotional brew, making a narrow “to prove them wrong” or “win the argument” path extremely tempting, but it is unlikely to be very persuasive.

Values & Motivation

If our businessman really had to vent his frustrations on environmental laws, he might have got a nod of sympathy, although still no action, from a pro-industry politician. And however good his arguments, no parliamentarian is about to give up legislating – it is their value, motivation and their job. And they are all very sensitive about being accused of not knowing how the real world works.

So make sure that what you have to say chimes with the values and motivations of the decision makers you are meeting.


If you are looking to influence a political process, you cannot just talk with natural allies on one side of the political debate. You have to be able to speak to everyone, natural friends or not, and this requires empathy.

It is hard to feel a lot of empathy when you’re ‘going into battle’ with people you disagree with, but this is exactly what you have to try to do. Put yourself in their position – what are they trying to achieve? What do they really care about? What is driving them?

Start the meeting by stating that everyone can agree that something must be done, and you want to find a solution just as much as they do. This immediately orientates the discussion towards a solution, as well as ‘putting out feelers’ to build a rapport, as you share a common goal, even if you do not (yet) agree on the means of getting there.

Empathy allows you to understand and share the feelings with those across ideological divides, putting you in a better position to build a rapport and gain support.

Persuasion & Influence

You may enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, but getting into arguments to prove the correctness of your case is self-defeating. Lobbying is about trying to guide or nudge decision makers towards your solution.

At meetings, at a minimum, you would like to be seen as a credible authority and be welcomed back; or even better, become a trusted partner in the debate; or best of all, successful in gathering support for a decision you want. So -

  1. Focus on a wide solution, not the narrow fight

  2. Keep calm

  3. Be solution-orientated and avoid the clashes

  4. Understand the motivations and values of the different political players

  5. Empathise with those you are trying to persuade.

Of course, not all your lobbying meetings will be successful, but you have a much better chance of prevailing if you are in the actual meeting room – unlike our businessman who was never invited back…

Darcy Nicolle is CEO of Political Solutions and author of “The Secret Art of Lobbying” the essential business guide to winning in the political jungle. Learn more

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