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Otherizing and the Death of Persuasion

How a natural evolutionary trait makes you less influential and less successful.

Key points

  • Otherizing is thinking, talking, and treating other people as if they belong to a different class of humans different from ourselves.
  • Otherizing is highly counterproductive for anyone who wants to improve their level of power, influence, persuasion.
  • A simple method to learn empathy is to develop the skill of small talk.

"They are the problem!"

"They just don't get it!’

"How can they think that way?"

When we make statements like these, what are we doing?

We are otherizing—the act of thinking of, talking about, and treating other people as if they belong to a different class of humans who are fundamentally, perhaps irreconcilably, different from ourselves. And as you can probably already tell from the title of this post, otherizing—aside from being a big problem in society in general—is one of the most effective ways you can be as uninfluential, unpersuasive, and unsuccessful as possible. The challenge is that the human tendency to otherize is evolutionarily wired into our brains. Fortunately, we can counter this tendency by making conscious use of an ordinary, commonly misunderstood activity that humanizes others, boosts empathy, and makes you a superstar of persuasion and influence.

It’s Not Entirely Your Fault

It’s important to understand that when it comes to otherizing, we all do it—some people more so than others, but everybody does it to some degree. That’s because our brains evolved to work this way, and for good reasons. Our ancestors lived in small tribal groupings in which there were constant threats to their survival from the environment, wild animals, and other humans. That’s a lot of potential threats to keep track of, so to reduce the cognitive burden, our brains developed the ability to categorize. Members of our ancestors’ tribes (“us”) could be counted on to work together because their survival was at stake. Still, members of other tribes (“them”) could be competitive or aggressive, so it was easier and safer to be suspicious of anyone we didn’t already know.

Since we can’t undo evolution overnight, this hardwired tendency continues today even though our modern, globalized world requires more cooperation than ever between groups and societies. So we naturally tend to trust members of whatever in-groups we see ourselves as part of (e.g., Americans, Californians, San Diegans) better than members of out-groups we do not see ourselves as part of. Worse, we’re quick to attribute all kinds of negative stereotypes onto those out-groups, allowing our antipathy to fester. Some of these might even be based on a grain of truth or experience, but too many of them are not. It’s not hard to imagine how this can create problems for our society.

Why This Undermines Persuasiveness

Otherizing and antipathizing aren’t just bad for society overall. It’s highly counter-productive for anyone who wants to improve their level of power, influence, persuasion, and political skill in organizational settings. The reason has to do with a certain ability that, when present, boosts persuasiveness and, when absent, undermines it. It also underlies many of the different skills and techniques discussed on this blog. That ability is empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints of others. There are three types of empathy, but they all share the essential quality of understanding (and, going further, to sympathize with) other people’s feelings and viewpoints, even if you don’t share those feelings and perspectives. Although this isn’t widely recognized, empathizing is one of the most critical abilities for being more influential and persuasive. Empathy is what allows you to persuade someone using their arguments. It’s what enables you to engage in “dialogue talk,” which defuses conflict, instead of “control talk,” which enflames it. And it’s the critical human component that true psychopaths lack.

Unfortunately, when we otherize people, we sabotage our ability to empathize. Sadder still, we constantly otherize people without even realizing it.

A Simple Method for Building Empathy

Fortunately, there is a remedy. Broadly speaking, that remedy is to humanize others instead of otherizing them. But there are many ways to humanize people, and some of them are pretty challenging. Since I believe in starting with small steps that are easy and realistic, I suggest a practice that many people already do without even thinking about it. With a little bit, of course, almost anyone can do well. I’m talking about the practice of small talk. (Truth be told, I don’t even like the term “small talk.” I prefer the term “connect talk” because that’s what it is. But since “small talk” is the term that people recognize, I’ll use that term here.)

For valid reasons related to personality or cultural background, many people dislike small talk because it seems shallow or boring. They prefer talking about more substantial topics, which, in a social setting, could mean discussing personal passions or, in an organizational setting, could mean “getting down to business.” Small talk can undoubtedly have its downsides, especially if it goes on for too long or if it’s used to avoid discussing crucial matters. But small talk, in a way that many don’t fully realize, serves an essential function in its own right.

Think about it. Sharing deeper details about yourself as an individual or about your organization can make you somewhat vulnerable. Why would you want to make yourself vulnerable in front of people you don’t know well, especially if they can potentially abuse your trust? (Again, it’s helpful to think of it from an evolutionary perspective, and our ancestors’ need to constantly protect themselves.)

Well, this is one of the purposes of small talk, to create a sense of familiarity with other people, to gauge if it’s “safe” to interact with them, do business with them, etc. It serves as the bridge between meeting people and getting to know them better so that they can become a part of the in-group, “one of us” instead of “one of them.”

As well as serving as a bridge, small talk can also boost empathy by itself by finding commonalities. Having things in common—even small or seemingly shallow things such as favorite snacks, TV shows, or sports teams—can be the start of helping people to feel that the person sitting across from them isn’t so different from them after all.

How to Do Small Talk Productively

There are many specific techniques for getting better at small talk and making it more enjoyable, even for those who dislike it or find it difficult. However, it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into all those techniques in detail. Instead, the focus here has been to argue for why small talk is important and why anyone who wants to be more influential and persuasive needs to understand its power when used purposefully. Nevertheless, some broad principles can serve as a starting point.

The first thing to remember is that small talk should be approached consciously for the politically skillful individual. For most people, small talk is an unconscious process, and that’s natural, but approaching it consciously will help you maximize its power, especially if you tend to struggle with small talk due to introversion or cultural background. Also, remember that small talk is a skill, and, like all skills, you can vastly get better at it with practice.

Next, when engaging in small talk, active listening will simultaneously make the small talk easier to do, and it will also make you better at it. This is for numerous reasons. One, active listening removes some of the pressure of coming up with things to say. If you listen, ask a few questions, and then ask follow-up questions based on people’s answers, the topics will naturally present themselves. If you display your apparent sincerity, people will be more than happy to keep talking about themselves for as long as you’ll let them. This is why introverts can shine at small talk since active listening can come naturally to many. Finally, active listening also helps you identify those commonalities that are so good for building rapport. On the other hand, tuning out during the small talk, which many people do, will cause you to miss those details.

Lastly, small talk is highly context-dependent. Many situations lend themselves well to small talk, but some do not. Being in a different cultural setting, for example, can require you to be flexible and observant. So can different personalities, and forcing small talk on someone who shows signs of not wanting to engage will only undermine your goal of creating rapport. A good acronym to remember is S.O.S, which stands for Self, Other Person, and Situation. “Self” matters because some days you may not be in the right state of mind, and “Other Person” and “Situation” matter for the reasons just explained.

Above all, always try to remember why you’re engaging in small talk in the first place, especially if you don’t naturally enjoy it as some people do. It’s not about being shallow--it’s about building a safe bridge over uncertain waters so that empathy can cross over. That empathy, in turn, will not only allow you to be more influential and persuasive with your fellow humans, but it will also allow you to see those humans as ordinary people with everyday hopes and dreams, just like you. And that, my friends, is as deep as you can get.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the University of San Diego School of Business.

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