Enlisting 3 Approaches to Persuasion

I've found that Ethos, however well-intentioned, has limited appeal to those who are caught in ferociously competitive pressures, who feel they have to do whatever they must to survive.

Ever wondered if the art of high-level persuasion was "Greek" to you? Perhaps you were even more right than you knew. Actually, a deeper understanding of three ancient persuasion options can help you better rally potential allies, turn around resistors, and make positive things happen.

In his seminal works on "rhetoric" (I define this as persuasion), Aristotle proposed three approaches to changing another's mind:

  1. Ethos – appealing to ethics
  2. Logos – building a logical case
  3. Pathos – enlisting emotions or imagination

Each of these has strengths and limitations. For 21st century leaders intent on changing outlook and actions, these translate as:

1. Ethos = "It's the right thing to do." Ethos is ultimately an appeal to what some consider humans' "higher nature," the part that cares strongly for fellow beings and nature, seeking to rise above the fray of petty jealousies, greed, and small-mindedness.

Ethos persuaders often try to reach Executives, managers, and other leaders by urging (sometimes even "guilting") them to be better than who they previously were, to more fully support safety, and to become more trustworthy. The desired result might be these leaders' providing a higher level of resources or leadership or be willing to underwrite a different approach, intervention, tool, etc.

This persuasion method also may be directed toward inducing workers to adopt new ways that help increase profits or the safety record, to better support peers (e.g., becoming their "brother's keeper"), use personal protective equipment as a default in order to serve as a role model to others, or because everyone should just adhere to policies and procedures.

I've found that Ethos, however well-intentioned, has limited appeal to those who are caught in ferociously competitive pressures, who feel they have to do whatever they must to survive. Those who argue for Ethos are often seen as naive, pie-in-the-sky, or out of touch by self-styled "realists." Further, Ethos persuaders may tend to lecture and can be seen as thinking themselves "morally superior." If so, Ethos persuaders can lose credibility with working people or with “hard-nosed” managers.

While I've found this appeal to "do the right thing" is limited, the character of the persuader is perhaps the most important element of Ethos. If you are seen as consistent, honest, and concerned about others, your very nature communicates Ethos, no matter which persuasion approach you employ.

2. Logos = "It makes sense." Those who enlist Logos champion logic, efficiency, strategy, reason, intelligence, and reducing shortsightedness. Their appeal is to think, then act with greater wisdom than in the past.

A Logos argument might include cost-benefit analysis, awareness of negative consequences of current methods, how to put odds in favor of avoiding injury, logical consequences of actions on future results (e.g., what will happen in 30 years from failure to wear hearing protection), how approaching Safety strategically as a leader will strengthen the company, etc.

Logos approaches rule in boardrooms, debate classes, and, ostensibly, in courts of law. Certainly, showing the potential fruits of improved strategy is one effective way to reach senior managers, and explaining principles can transfer methods for safer actions (e.g., how by understanding the 3 Laws of Motion, any worker can gain more usable strength while simultaneously protecting herself from soft-tissue weardown). But a Logos approach alone is rarely enough to lastingly change outlook and actions.

So here's my Logos-driven analysis of Logos as a persuasion approach: If people were actually primarily ruled by logic, we'd all live like Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Hardly anyone would smoke, or be terribly out of condition, or mistreat those whose support they most need, or jeopardize their career, future, safety, or health with an illogical moment or action.

Logos was Aristotle's favorite choice -- he was, after all, a "philosopher" by trade who elevated logic to the highest position. Logos would likely be the best way to reach and persuade those of Aristotle's ilk; I've not found many that are like him, even among brilliant people.

Logos persuaders tend to talk much more than they listen and are often seen as thinking themselves "smarter than others."

3. Pathos = "Here's how this affects you." Pathos helps people see that changing the way they think and act can better get them what they want. Pathos emphasizes changing energy and motivating personally.

Pathos persuaders strongly employ interaction and involvement. They usually tell stories to make points and to expand others' imagination of what's possible, rather than just appealing to morality or logic. They're usually more personal in their approach than are Logos or Ethos advocates, tending to discuss lessons learned and portraying their own limitations. Compared to the other two styles, Pathos most strongly emphasizes action rather than just mindset, planning, or consideration.

Many "traditional" Safety persuaders apply the negative side of Pathos: attempting to use fear of consequences (from dismissal to disability to dismemberment to death) toward activating an emotional reaction that motivates change. But this often results in pushback or disconnection. More advanced Pathos persuaders employ positive motivation -- showing personal benefits of safer decisions and actions, identification with role models, opportunities to help those they care about, and more.

By artfully blending your own mix of these three persuasive powers, you can better shift others' outlook and then their actions.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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