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Rogerian Argument & Persuasion

 Use Rogerian persuasion with a hostile audience

Rogerian persuasion turns losers into winners

“Use Rogerian affirmation to calm a disgruntled customer

“Reduce workplace anxiety by practicing Rogerian persuasion”

Also see persuasive writing, conflict resolution, and managerial communication.


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Use Rogerian persuasion with a hostile audience

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Do you 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 for.

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 common ground.

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 mutual interests.

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.



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Rogerian persuasion turns losers into winners

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Are you 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 minority?

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 argumentation.

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.


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Use Rogerian affirmation to calm a disgruntled customer

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

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 page helpline.


“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 woman’s instructions.


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 response.


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 certain circumstances.


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 compromise.



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Reduce workplace anxiety by practicing Rogerian persuasion

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

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 democracy.)


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 understood).”


So how do you convey genuineness, acceptance, and empathy to that clueless jerk in your workplace/neighborhood/family who voted for Trump/Clinton/Stein/Johnson?


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.



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