Argument & Persuasion
Rogerian persuasion with a hostile audience”
First published January 19, 1996
persuasion turns losers into winners”
First published October 18, 2010
workplace anxiety by practicing Rogerian persuasion”
First published January 19, 1996
Rogerian persuasion with a hostile audience
By Stephen Wilbers
prefer classical rhetoric or Rogerian persuasion?
If this is a question you haven’t given
much thought to lately, you may be taking a standard one-size-fits-all
approach in your persuasive writing when a variety of methods is called
First, some definitions.
Classical rhetoric is a body of rules
and principles governing the persuasive use of language, as devised by the
ancient Greek philosophers (primarily Aristotle). Sometimes called the
"antagonistic" or "oppositional" method, this style of argumentation
involves two parties presenting opposing arguments to a third,
theoretically neutral party.
Both our judicial system (composed of
prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, and judge or jury) and our
political system (composed of Republican candidate, Democratic candidate,
and electorate) are based on this win/lose model.
In contrast, Rogerian persuasion,
sometimes called the "non-antagonistic" or nonoppositional" method, is a
rhetorical strategy that seeks not to highlight differences but to find
Based on the thinking of the American
humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, this style of argumentation involves
only two parties. The goal is not for one party to vanquish a
second party (in the judgment of a third party), but for one party to try
to change the thinking of a second party.
Rogerian persuasion requires the writer
to give a fair and accurate statement of the other party’s ideas and
feelings before presenting the opposing viewpoint. The rhetorical strategy
is that the writer’s empathy and fair-minded tone will lower the other
party’s resistance to new thinking.
To contrast the two methods, consider
two current events: In the Washington budget negotiations, the predominant
rhetorical style seems to be classical; in the Dayton peace talks, the
predominate style was presumably Rogerian.
In classical rhetoric, two opposing
parties address a third party without trying to convince the other; in
Rogerian persuasion, two opposing parties acknowledge each other’s
viewpoint even as they try to convince the other. The objective of
classical rhetoric, with its emphasis on conflict, is victory; the
objective of Rogerian persuasion, with its emphasis on empathy, is
understanding and problem-solving.
So, what are the practical implications
of classical rhetoric vs. Rogerian persuasion for the business writer?
Which method offers more promise for winning arguments, making decisions
or resolving conflicts?
Well, it depends on the situation. Let’s
say you are a branch manager in a firm with a relatively centralized power
structure. One of the other branch managers has presented an argument to
your CEO advocating more autonomy and local leadership. You see this as a
power grab, and you want to argue against the proposed changes.
In this situation, you might devise an
argument using classical rhetoric and a standard five-part format:
opening, background, presentation of your argument, refutation of opposing
argument, and closing restatement of your argument.
On the other hand, if your goal is not
to defeat your opponent’s initiative but to change your opponent’s mind,
you might present an argument (not to your CEO but to your opponent) using
Rogerian persuasion and this format: opening, background, fair and
accurate statement of opposing position, validation of opposing position
in certain contexts, presentation of your position, and closing appeal to
This less aggressive strategy offers
some obvious benefits. You might change your opponent’s mind. Your
opponent might change your mind. More important, if your opponent had used
Rogerian persuasion on you to enlist your support in the first
place, a classical conflict might have been avoided.
As a general rule, classical rhetoric is
more effective with uncommitted, open-minded audiences; Rogerian
persuasion is more effective with biased or hostile audiences,
particularly when the situation is delicate.
First published October 18, 2010
persuasion turns losers into winners
By Stephen Wilbers
feeling oppositional these days? If so, you’re not alone.
We live in a divided country, where
consensus between warring parties seems impossible, where the rich are
getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, where civil discourse
among those with differing viewpoints seems like a long lost art. And the
folks in the middle? What happened to them? Have they become the silent
History has much to teach us about
rhetoric, the artful use of language for persuasion. (Isn’t it interesting
how certain words like rhetoric take on contrary meanings? But
perhaps those shifts are academic.) Plato, Aristotle, Cicero,
Quintilian, and other ancient rhetoricians taught an oppositional mode of
argumentation, one that is in full force today. It involves two opponents
attempting to persuade not one another but a third entity, such as a jury
or an electorate. Oppositional argumentation, with its sharply delineated
viewpoints, produces winners and losers.
The formulation of an alternative
approach began in 1951, when American psychologist Carl Rogers published a
paper titled "Communication: Its Blocking and its Facilitation." In that
paper Rogers proposes a non-antagonistic approach based not on
confrontation but on empathy and affirmation. Rather than two opponents
seeking to win over a third party, Rogerian persuasion involves two
parties talking directly to one another and seeking to find common ground
and compromise in a win-win scenario. Rogers’ method was simple: "Each
person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas
and feelings of the previous speaker, and to that speaker’s satisfaction."
You can’t paraphrase and affirm, the
theory goes, unless you listen. And attentive listening is more apt to
produce mutually beneficial results than classical or oppositional
How do these two modes of argumentation
apply to the workplace?
When you need to state choices clearly,
debate issues rigorously, and define outcomes precisely, classical
rhetoric is probably your better option. But when you want to understand
and appreciate your opponent’s perspective, reduce conflict, promote team
spirit, and encourage creative thinking, risk-taking, and problem-solving,
Rogerian persuasion is probably your better bet.
It’s good to have both approaches, but I
believe we sometimes resort unthinkingly to oppositional argumentation
when Rogerian persuasion would better serve our needs – as when problems
are complex, no easy solutions are available, and fresh thinking is
needed. As when a once-great country finds itself in decline, or a
still-great country commits itself to continued greatness.
Imagine. A country in which people tried
to see the validity of opposing points of view, rather than worked to
accentuate differences and distort opposing arguments. Imagine a country
in which people actually listened to one another.
If only we could have the world John
Lennon and Louis Armstrong imagined, a world that "lives as one," with
"trees of green, red roses, too. . . skies of blue and clouds of white."
The question isn’t whether such a world
is realistic. The question is whether you can imagine it.
What a wonderful world it would be.
First published February 3, 2015
Use Rogerian affirmation to calm a disgruntled customer
By Stephen Wilbers
My wife was trying to pay our insurance premium online. I heard her sigh
and then groan. Finally she picked up the phone and called the insurance
“But I did that already,” she said, her voice rising in exasperation.
“When I clicked pay, everything I entered disappeared.”
She hung up, re-entered all of her information, clicked pay, and
all of her information disappeared again. She redialed the helpline, more
unhappy than the first time she called. As she explained the problem, I
could hear a woman’s voice, saying, “I know, I know,” in a calm,
commiserating tone. Almost instantly the stress disappeared from my wife’s
voice, she laughed, reached for her keyboard, and started following the
What struck me was that even before my wife’s problem had been solved, her
frustration had mostly vanished. Mostly, not entirely. (She also said,
“Meanwhile, you’re not getting any money because your website won’t take
it.”) Nevertheless, the tension had eased and her annoyance had been
lowered. Why? Because she had found a listener who had conveyed, as much
by her tone as her words, (1) she understood her problem, (2) she
recognized her exasperation, and (3) she affirmed her right to feel what
she was feeling.
“I know. I know.” In other words, I understand. I empathize. I affirm. And
with that assurance, the conversation took a positive turn. If only
everyone in customer service understood the importance of that simple
I understand. I empathize. I affirm.
American psychologist Carl Rogers used affirmation in his non-oppositional
approach to conflict resolution, a method once commonly used in marriage
counseling. Unlike classical argument, in which one party tries to prove
the other wrong, in Rogerian argument both parties search for common
ground. Rather than a win-lose adversarial approach, Rogerian argument
searches for a win-win solution.
Hierarchical work environments tend to favor classical argument; more
egalitarian environments favor Rogerian. The former rewards aggression,
bold leadership, and clear-cut decision-making; the latter engenders
trust, creativity, and risk-taking.
The efficacy of Rogerian argument depends on its conciliatory tone. It
isn’t a question of proving one person right and the other wrong. It’s a
matter of emphasizing commonality in a process that proceeds in this
order: I understand your point of view, even if it differs from mine. I
recognize your right to hold it. In fact, if I were you, I would feel the
same way. And I affirm the validity of your viewpoint, at least under
Note the word certain. Rogerian affirmation is meant to facilitate
resolution, not force capitulation. There’s still room to disagree. The
insurance company still has to get its website to work, and my wife isn’t
going to pay until it does. After affirming an opposing viewpoint under
certain circumstances, either party can turn the argument in a
direction closer to its own position. But if the process is working and
both sides are genuinely listening to the other, both are more likely to
First published December 6, 2017
Reduce workplace anxiety by practicing Rogerian persuasion
By Stephen Wilbers
So how are you feeling these days? Delighted with the election results?
Reassured by our bold new leadership? Confident about the future?
Many people are. Others not so much.
Whether you’re feeling exuberant or terrified (or something in between),
here’s how you can work to create a more positive, more productive, and
less anxious workplace (and world).
Start not with action, but with values and vision.
Borrowing from the YMCA’s statement of core values (as I did in a previous
column), I would identify eight values as my motivating beliefs: respect,
responsibility, honesty, and caring, compassion, forgiveness, generosity,
and kindness. My actions may fall short, but these values are my guiding
principles. (One could argue they also are fundamental to a functioning
What are your values? Do other people share them?
I’m guessing that more than 90% of the people reading this column,
regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation, share mine (or at
least pay them lip service to them). If so, a 90% mandate seems like a
good starting place for talking about differences, resolving conflicts,
solving problems, making decisions, and determining policy.
Next you need a strategy – a strategy not in the sense of a scheme for
converting people to think or vote or worship as you do (in other words,
to be more like you), but a strategy for reconciling differences in search
of common ground. The strategy I recommend is Rogerian argument (that is
“argument” in the classical sense), after the psychologist Carl Rogers.
Because Rogerian argument is non-oppositional in tone and approach,
however, I prefer to call it Rogerian persuasion.
In contrast to classical win/lose argumentation, Rogerian persuasion seeks
not to defeat an opponent (as in an election), but to promote openness to
opposing points of view, acceptance of new ways of thinking, and
formulation of mutually beneficial outcomes. (The latter objective can be
described as finding win/win solutions or, more crudely, as responding to
“What’s in it for me?”)
Non-oppositional Rogerian persuasion seems especially relevant during
times of conflict and change – like now, for instance.
Carl Rogers recognized that change was inevitable. He also believed that
it was inherently unpredictable. And as we all know, whether predictable
or unpredictable, change can be stressful.
According to Saul McLeod on his SimplyPsychology website, Rogers believed
that for people to “grow” they need “an environment that provides them
with genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), acceptance (being seen
with unconditional positive regard), and empathy (being listened to and
So how do you convey genuineness, acceptance, and empathy to that clueless
jerk in your workplace/neighborhood/family who voted for
Well, you don’t abandon your values, even as you act in compromise for a
greater good. You offer empathy (“I understand your anger”), affirmation
(“Anyone would be angry over losing their job”), and validation (“It’s
true that some Muslims are terrorists”), and then – and only then – do you
offer your own point of view.
You may not change any minds, but if you are truly listening, people whose
views differ from yours may be more likely to listen to you.