how and when to engage a fool
In 1804, two political rivals met on a field in New Jersey to settle their differences with a couple of pistols. Alexander Hamilton, a former secretary of the treasury, faced Aaron Burr. Hamilton had supported another candidate in a race for governor and had expressed concerns both publicly and privately about Burr. There had also been a presidential election that went to the electoral college and it was largely Hamilton’s influence that kept Burr from being elected president.
Hamilton’s once said that Burr “will make stipulations, but he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and breaks them the first moment it may serve his purpose.” That sounds like a modern Tweet. But Burr challenged Hamilton yo this duel because, at a political dinner, Hamilton had said Burr was “dangerous and despicable.” Perhaps even deplorable. Hamilton took the first shot and missed. Burr took a second shot and mortally wounded Hamilton. Then Burr took a train and returned to his day job as vice president of the United States. Hamilton had some opportunity to talk to his friends and family but died the next day.
the challenge we face
Today we don’t need 58 caliber pistols because we have Facebook. In our workplaces, our schools, and our family dinners, we encounter rudeness, insults, belittling, and name-calling. This happens everywhere, but especially online, where the illusion of anonymity and distance gives us a false sense of power and control. Well before the 2016 campaign, public relations firm Weber Shandwick reported 95% of respondents to a major survey believed we have a civility problem in America and 70% said incivility had reached crisis proportions. In this environment negativity flourishes and collaboration and problem-solving become difficult, even impossible.
Just being around or exposed to incivility makes us fearful, frustrated, disappointed, and apathetic. Christine Porath at Georgetown University concluded being exposed to coarse and rude behavior made subjects more likely to have dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts themselves. This would be a good reason to quit reading comments online and hide some of your negative friends on social media, even if you happen to agree with them. Negativity is not good for you. It’s not good for them either.
This problem is serious but it is not new. The ancient book of Proverbs associates lying tongues and angry thoughts with words like violence, deceit, mischief, trouble, and ruin. Proverbs 12:18 says rash words are like a “sword thrust.” (They didn’t have pistols then.) Proverbs 21:6 says the getting of treasure by lying is “a fleeting vapor and the snare of death.” Proverbs 24:1-2 says not to be envious of evil men or desire to be with them “for their hearts devise violence and their lips talk of trouble. “
Proverbs 26:23–26 cautions us, both as speakers and listeners:
Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel
are fervent lips with an evil heart.
Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips
and harbors deceit in his heart;
when he speaks graciously, believe him not,
for there are seven abominations in his heart;
though his hatred be covered with deception,
his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly. (ESV)
Men who use their tongues in these harmful and hurtful ways are frequently described in Proverbs as fools, and we are told “a fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion (Proverbs 18:2).” We are also warned that there is no need or merit in arguing with a fool: “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool. For he will despise the good sense of your words (Proverbs 23:9).” We are even told not to answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4). But should we ever argue with a fool? Or anybody, for that matter. The very next verse (Proverbs 26:15) says to answer a fool according to his folly or he will be wise in his own eyes. So sometimes we answer and sometimes we don’t. It depends on whether they are bent on foolishness or just ignorant (see Samuel Rodenhizer on this point). You should speak to a feel who shows some willingness to learn.
Clearly, there are things that need to be said so there must be ways to say them. How do we say difficult things to difficult people? Perhaps you can win an argument with a fool, although you probably can’t. But there is a way for the wise man to speak, to persuade and even to argue, without shouting at others or demeaning or ignoring them. Proverbs 16:23 says, ”The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” This is our challenge but also our calling. And there are at least four ways, according to Proverbs, that we can be more persuasive.
The first is to have good reasons and offer them in appropriate ways at appropriate times.
This requires you to know what you’re talking about. The Proverbs consistently commend knowledge. They were written, in fact, to give prudence to the simple, and knowledge and discretion to the youth. “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge but the mouth of fools pours out folly (Proverbs 23:9).” Often what we need to be persuasive is better facts, not more opinions.
Nothing is true simply because our favorite politician or author or religious leader said it. If you don’t know their reasons, if you’re aren’t willing to investigate these reasons, you do better to say nothing at all. Proverbs 12:17 says “whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence.” The lips of the wise spread knowledge, not rumor, innuendo or gossip, even if it supports our position.
Do your homework or shut up.
You also do well to think about the timing. Not everything that needs to be said needs to be said right now. Proverbs 25:11-12 says,
A word fitly spoken
is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold
is a wise reprover to a listening ear. (ESV)
People need the time and capacity to listen. Wait till they can afford to pay attention. Persuasion can afford to be patient. Sometimes the truth can wait.
A second way to be more persuasive is to be more restrained. Having the right reasons is not enough. Some discretion is required. You don’t have to say everything you know, and you certainly don’t have to say everything you think. Proverbs 13:3 says, “Whoever guards his lips preserves his life.” And we’re told in Proverbs 5:1, “My son, be attentive to my wisdom. Incline your ear to my understanding that you may keep discretion and your lips may guard knowledge.”
Sometimes there’s something to be said for being silent. Mark Twain famously said that it’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. But this idea wasn’t original with Twain. Proverb 17:28 says “Even a fool when he keeps silent is considered wise.” Many of us spend a lot of time talking about things we don’t understand. This makes it more likely that we’ll make a fool of ourselves, or repeat someone else’s lie.
The ancients consistently commend an economy of words. Proverbs 10:19, for example, says “when words are many transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is wise.” Extra words often cause extra problems. That’s why the best email dealing with a difficult or complicated situation is the shortest one you can write. Otherwise, everyone will argue with every point that you made. Fewer words are often better words. As Proverbs 17:27 puts it: “Whoever restrains his words is wise and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” You will be much more persuasive when you are known for your cool spirit and restraint. When everything that comes out of your mouth is actually important, people will listen to you. When nothing you say is important, nobody is listening.
There are a couple of ways to show restraint and one of them is not to talk about ourselves so much. Proverbs 30:32 says, “If you’ve been foolish, exalting yourself, put your hand on your mouth.” This may be the greatest temptation of social media today, the temptation to talk endlessly about ourselves and our opinions. We spend hours on Facebook and Instagram or Linkedin creating the perfect picture of ourselves and our kids and our careers. We spent hours making sure everybody knows every detail of everything we ever thought about anything that any politician ever said. Proverbs 30, however, tells us to open our mouth on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves or who are destitute, to defend the rights of the poor and needy. You’ll be even more persuasive if you were known as a cool spirit who cares more about others than you do yourself.
Another way to show restraint is just to spend more time listening and less time talking because effective communication includes listening. Understanding this is important because we often get upset before we understand. By listening more closely, we avoid overreacting and it allows us to frame our arguments more carefully. “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future (Proverbs 19:20).” Feedback is not just giving others a chance to speak. It’s paying attention to what they say. And notice what we should listen to: advice and instruction. The listening commended in the Proverbs is about instruction and even reproof, as much about humility as it is about persuasion. We always communicate better when we communicate a willingness to learn.
A third principle involves our motive. While rash words are like sword thrusts, the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18). We have to ask ourselves what we want—and what we should want is healing and reconciliation. Proverbs 15:4 says, “a gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” And Proverbs 24:26 gives us this powerful metaphor: “whoever gives an honest answer, kisses the lips.” That’s such a provocative verse you should read it out loud: “Whoever gives an honest answer, kisses the lips.”
Think about that for a moment. Here’s the context, Proverbs 24:24–26:
Whoever says to the wicked, “You are in the right,”
will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations
but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight,
and a good blessing will come upon them.
Whoever gives an honest answer
kisses the lips. (ESV)
Something rare in our world is somebody who cares about you and is willing to be honest with you. That’s a real gesture of affection and respect. That’s why an honest answer is like a kiss on the lips. It conveys this respect, this affection. How deeply do you care about the person you are trying to convince and how does he or she know? Sometimes the motive is more important even than the message and it’s always at least as important. Otherwise, the truth we have is merely a club we use to beat people up. It’s not a kindness. It does not bring healing or grace. Ultimately we can’t persuade people we don’t actually care about.
We’re told that to make an apt answer is a joy to a man (Proverbs 15:23) and the apt answer is one that refreshes his spirit, perhaps just a word that acknowledges him. Often when we get into a conversation there’s somebody on the edge of that conversation to whom no one in the group even speaks. Be that one who speaks to them. Invite them in. Acknowledge them, welcome them, thank them. At least you will persuade one person. A rhetoric of grace is powerful because it reduces anxiety, which is the reason people don’t talk when they’re in groups. “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad (Proverbs 12:25).”
Ultimately the word that makes him glad is the word that gives him hope. “The hope of the righteous brings joy (Proverbs 10:28).” “Know that wisdom is such to your soul. If you find it, there will be a future and your hope will not be cut off (Proverbs 24:14 ).” This is the ultimate persuasive message.
The most important thing we can say is that there is hope. And that’s why relentless negativity can be a distraction from saying what needs to be said the way it needs to be said. Look at all the doomsayers and conspiracy theorists and the alarmist you know: this is not the way the wise man frames his arguments or advances the truth. According to Proverbs 16:21, “The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” Yes, that would be more persuasive.
Be reasonable, restrained, refreshing and redemptive. But know sweetness of speech is not flattery or seduction. It is not a technique. Gracious words are like a honeycomb (Proverbs 16:24), nourishing and energizing. The difference between sweetness of speech and seduction is entirely about our motive and our heart. Our speech is sweet when are concerned for someone else.
death and life
Alexander Hamilton took the first shot on that summer afternoon and there is evidence that he missed deliberately. His own son had died in a duel three years before and Burr was a younger man, standing for election as vice president of the United States. Hamilton, even though he disagreed with Burr politically, could see the damage that would be done by killing him. Duels were also outlawed in many states. In fact, they had to go to a different state to have the duel because in more and more states it wasn’t legal. It was becoming common in these duels to just shoot and miss to prove you had the courage and then shake hands and go home. But Burr didn’t shoot back and miss. He shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. Do you see how little he understood about what was going on? About what Hamilton’s motive was in missing him? Burr went on to lose all of his political power and potential while Hamilton went on to be on our $10 bill.
But that’s not the point of the story. The point is we don’t know always understand and there is much damage we can do. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue and those who love it will eat its fruits (Proverbs 18:21).” For the ancient Hebrews, persuasion is about choosing the life-giving power of the tongue, persuading others with better facts, fewer words, greater love, and more grace.
In this way “‘the heart of the wise man makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips (Proverbs 16:23).”