Almost Thou Persuadest Me


‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul replied, ‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.’ — Acts 26:27-29

Paul, canny fellow that he was, rarely missed an opportunity to speak freely and to testify about his conversion from domestic terrorist to revolutionary preacher. In this episode, appearing in chains before Festus the governor and King Agrippa II and his wife, Queen Bereniece—who also happened to be his sister—Paul charges in where angels fear to tread. Evangelist that he is, he asks a question and quickly answers it: ‘I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa? You can almost hear the incredulity in his voice: ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ But Paul will not be diverted. In a rhetorical jujitsu move, he deflects the criticism and extends the offer to everyone within earshot—the whole court. Agrippa doesn’t bite, but as the party moves offstage they are heard giving Paul a pass. “He doesn’t sound all that bad.”

Paul is now inside Agrippa’s head and who knows what the result will be down the road?

We can speculate why Agrippa reacted the way he did with the aid of a communication theory that analyzes attitudinal changes for persuasion.

Social Judgement Theory says that when we hear or read a message we immediately assign it a location on the attitude scale in our minds. This is a subconscious sorting of ideas that occurs at the instant of perception. In other words, it’s a reaction rather than a considered response. We judge every idea by comparing how far away or close to our present point of view it is. That present point of view is called our anchor point.

Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif, the authors of the theory, believed that our attitudes can be understood as an amalgam of three latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and noncommitment. The latitude of acceptance is the range of ideas that a person sees as reasonable or worthy of consideration. The latitude of rejection is the range of ideas that someone sees as unreasonable or unworthy of consideration. And the latitude of noncommitment is the range of ideas that a person sees neither as acceptable nor objectionable. Carolyn Sherif said that as persuaders we need to know the location and the width of each of these latitudes in order to know what it will take to persuade that person.

Another important concept in Social Judgement Theory is what the Sherifs called ego-involvement: the importance of the issue to us. High ego-involvement means you have a lot invested in the position, that you feel strongly about it, and that you’re likely to reject most challenges to it. The greater the degree of ego-involvement the harder it will be for attitudes to change and to persuade those persons to shift their position.

There are three characteristics of people with high ego-involvement in an issue. First, their latitude of noncommitment is almost zero. If we really care about an issue we’ll tend toward the extremes of either zone of acceptance or rejection.

The second feature of high ego-involvement is that the latitude of rejection will be large. We’ll see things in black and white. If we thought about it more we might see something we agree with—but our quick inferences judge even mild statements as something to be rejected.

The third characteristic is that people who hold extreme opinions often take criticism personally. Extreme positions and high ego-involvement go together. It’s a matter of identity: if you attack my position then you’re attacking me.

All of this describes how the Sherifs pictured the cognitive structure of a person’s attitude. But what is the process that is triggered when we read or hear a message?

Muzafer Sherif said we compare our anchor point to all incoming messages and judge accordingly. Messages that we reject we push even farther away from our anchor point so we don’t have to deal with them. Messages that we agree with we snuggle up to—even if they may not have all that much in common with our anchor point.

These two effects are called contrast and assimilation. Messages that we reject we sharply contrast with our anchor point. Our reasons for drawing the contrast may be that we don’t like the speaker or the issue is too complex for us, or we are impatient, bored, or tired. And sometimes messages that are intended to persuade us through fear or force we will reject even more decisively in a boomerang effect. We are more often driven to attitudinal positions than we are drawn to them.

But messages that we like we may judge closer to our anchor point than they really are because we find the speaker attractive or the message reinforces what we’ve always thought. We won’t embrace it fully, but our position will shift incrementally. We will assimilate it into our thinking.

The authors thus believe that the greater the discrepancy, the more the hearers will adjust their attitudes. Nevertheless, we don’t leap from one extreme to the other. Change, if it comes, takes place in small steps, incrementally.

Most of these changes occur below our awareness, yet they powerfully shape attitudes and actions. From the outside, we may see no change in a person until suddenly the tectonic plates slip, and a major quake takes place. What looks impulsive and momentary may have been building for a long time. Persuasion is a gradual process. It’s also a social process that has the most lasting effect on us as a result of the influence of those we care about.

What advice do the Sharifs have for us if we want to persuade people? We need to find a message that is right on the edge of their latitude of acceptance. If there’s a small step from rejection to wary acceptance, that is much better than the boomerang effect. Don’t ask for too much at first; accept them and reward them for small steps.

Some things have become clear in the testing of social judgement theory One is that the greater the perceived expertise of the speaker the wider the latitude of acceptance. Credibility makes a difference, and credibility is a combination of honesty and expertise.

A second thing is that ambiguity often persuades better than clarity. We might think of it as emphasizing the general over the particular in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, some people are simply hardwired for dogmatism on every issue. Their minds are made up. There isn’t much point in trying to shift them because they are probably rooted in place.

This theory has some interesting implications for our communication with others, especially as we apply it to how we talk about spiritual matters and as we examine our own position within a faith community.

Through the years, as I was teaching courses in communication theory and persuasion and propaganda, this theory stood out because of something I had read years before by Ellen White, a 19th-century American writer, about conversion. She was talking of Saul’s “Damascus Road” experience, a Biblical story that has become synonymous with a traumatic and instantaneous change of heart and life. She said something to the effect that Saul would not have become Paul had not the Holy Spirit been working on him for a long while. Being flung from his horse and hearing a voice from heaven was the culmination of a long phase toward conversion. It was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Unconscious prejudice gave way to conscious allegiance and to the eruption of a new fire in his heart.

SJT illuminates the forming up of our attitudes and how those attitudes trigger our decisions and actions. It could also rattle our thinking about the effectiveness of mass evangelism techniques. I believe it calls us, instead, to speak one-to-one, to be thoughtful, and to be sensitive to the time it takes a person to reflect on profound ideas. Most of all, it recognizes the freedom God gives us to respond to the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, all in good time. Kairos, Paul would call it—the right time.

Photo: Justin Veenema,

Practicing Conversation


“It is not enough to relate our experiences: we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport.” — Michel Montaigne, The Art of Friendship

“This is only my opinion, but. . . .”  Lately, whenever I hear that in the classroom, in a conference, in a faculty meeting, or in casual conversation, I want to tear off all my clothes and start screaming. Since that is against most social norms and my better judgment, I signal my displeasure by the merest arching of an eyebrow.

How did we come to this point in common discourse? Why is it that when we edge ever closer to subjects of significance and weight, points that ought to be argued, elements of life that divide and conquer people, we retreat with a disarming smile into a cloud of unknowing?

The rules of engagement in these battles are followed to the letter. First, the disclaimer: “This is only my opinion. . . . “ Translation: I’m sorry if you take offense at anything I say, but everyone has the right to their own opinion.” This is followed by the actual opinion, which varies in its relevance to the discussion, but usually reflects the unconscious prejudices of the opinionator. Finally, there is the idemnification clause, intended to protect against the disagreeable opinions of others fired at point-blank range: “You may disagree, that’s okay—everyone is entitled to their own opinion—but I’m just saying. . . .” Then the speaker usually lapses into passivity, content to have said his piece, but uninterested in any extension of the argument unless it challenges his right to express his opinion.

This signals the death of dialogue and the throttling of democracy, which relies on the free exchange of ideas. But how can ideas freely circulate when they come walled about with petulant assertions designed to shore up fragile egos? We have lost the art of “conversation,” a word which can be traced back to its Latin roots in the idea of living in company with others, literally, ‘to turn about with.’ Another ancient root, a scriptural meaning, relates conversation to a ‘manner of life,’ or a way of being, never merely as a means of communication. It signifies a willingness to trust one another, to extend to others the means of grace whereby genuine learning can take place. It assumes that conversation takes time, that it evolves, and that it is so much more than mere assertion.

Robert Grudin places this squarely in the realm of liberty and calls these conversational skills the ‘arts of freedom.’ In a fascinating meditation entitled On Dialogue, Grudin says, “Once gained, moreover, the arts of freedom must be kept fresh by thought and action, taught to the young, bequeathed down generations.” Otherwise, he warns, the posturing demagogue and the ravenous mass-marketer “will turn liberty into its own caricature, a barbarous fool driven by fear and greed.”

It might seem a long leap from a classroom discussion to the foundations of democracy. We must also be wary of blaming the end of civilization on the young and restless. But Grudin, a professor of English at the University of Oregon, believes that these arts can and should be taught. “The operative pedagogical philosophy is that skill in these arts will enable people to make decisions and follow courses of action beneficial to themselves and society. In other words, people can learn freedom. Freedom is useless without a rational and emotional instrumentation that gives it substance.”

What I often see in classroom discussions is more a clash of egos than an exchange of ideas. Many times those who speak up are so eager to claim their point of view as theirs that the point—if there even was one—is lost.

Teachers don’t help much either. When I worked in faculty development I saw many syllabi which laid out elaborate rules for classroom discussions. I was struck by the pervasive fear which ran through the assumptions behind these rules. Students had to be protected from the sharp edges of differences between them: once you entered the classroom there were no races, genders, or cultures. Reference to these social categories was taboo: each person was simultaneously an individual so autonomous that she perceived reality in exclusively personal terms and she was a member of a massive, amorphous, egalitarian lump. No doubt the intentions were that no student should feel discriminated against—something no one should have to suffer—but the effect was to limit discussion to the confident few who wielded their vorpal swords for sport. These parts of our identity help make us who we are and we ignore them at our peril. They come back as labels and epithets if we don’t take their influence into consideration.

We learn with each other: that’s what conversation is. We are social beings, which is to say we find out who we are through interaction with others as well as reflection by ourselves. Self-awareness and self-reflection, though, are learned behaviors, brought about through practice in hearing about ourselves from other people as we dialogue. When we don’t practice at listening before we speak we panic when spoken to. Our desire to be known for ourselves rises up and before we know it we are chanting the mantra of the blindingly obvious: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. . . .” Whereupon we deliver our opinion as a verdict rather than an invitation.

I once went to a conference for men held at a large hall in downtown Washington, D.C. It was led by Robert Bly, a poet and self-styled men’s mentor, who had just published a book entitled Iron John. It was a manifesto on being a real man without becoming a slack-jawed, brutish jerk. During the course of his presentation he gave some time for statements and questions from the floor, but placed some conditions on the speakers.  They had to keep their contributions to three sentences in the interest of time and they could ask questions—but any sentence that was not a question had to be a simple, declarative sentence. It was issued as a challenge: say what’s on your heart without hedging it about with qualifiers. I took it as a request for open, sincere, and rugged conversation.

Nobody could do it.

Virtually everyone who spoke danced about their subjects, adding implied questions, footnotes, self-referential phrasing, and jargon. Bly was disgusted and berated us for our narcissism.

I have often thought of that experience for it revealed some principles I’d like to live by. We need to think before we speak; we need to listen to others; we need to give each other grace so that we have a space in which to learn from each other. That’s not my opinion, that’s my invitation.

Photo: William Stitt,