How To Disarm A Defensive Audience

When they’re staring daggers, try these persuasive tactics.

How To Disarm A Defensive Audience
[Photo: Flickr user Garry Knight]

Board members sat around the table with open containers of pork-fried rice and tense expressions on their faces, waiting for me to discuss their communications audit. I had been told in advance that some of them would welcome the findings, but others wouldn’t want to hear what I was about to say. I was there to ask them to do something they found personally difficult, even repugnant: fundraising. The success of the organization depended on it.


As I began to speak, I could see the emotion welling up. Restless board members held their tongues waiting for a chance to respond. I had to find a way to move them. But how?

Convincing people to do things they don’t want to do is the hardest type of persuasion. As soon as they discover our persuasive intent, defenses go up. They begin to counter-argue, if only in their minds. Their negative attitudes can become even stronger–something researchers have termed the “boomerang effect.”

However, there are ways to reduce resistance and increase the likelihood of persuasion. The next time you face entrenched attitudes from a difficult audience, try one of these evidence-based tactics.


Establish a personal connection with the audience by revealing your own struggles.

In a recent study published in the journal Science, same-sex marriage advocates went door-to-door in a conservative California neighborhood in an attempt to influence voter opinions on the topic. Some of the canvassers were gay and, as part of the study design, they came out to their listeners. Other canvassers were straight but discussed a gay friend or relative. The study found that gay canvassers had greater success in changing attitudes. Researchers believe the combination of personal contact and self-disclosure was the key.


Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, even with a difficult audience.

Edit note: this study was withdrawn in May 2015.


Much has been made of the value of storytelling in professional settings. Stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, are useful because they engage listeners and generate emotion. But they also bring down audience defenses.

Listeners willingly lose themselves in stories–a phenomenon called “transportation.” According to a 2014 meta-analysis published by the Journal of Consumer Research, transported listeners may be less likely to resist counter-attitudinal messages within stories because the messages don’t provoke much scrutiny.

In other words, narrative is the Trojan horse of persuasion. Try embedding your message within a story.



It’s possible to anticipate counter-arguments and refute them in advance. Such an approach can have an inoculative effect on listeners. It strengthens persuasion by supplying listeners with reasons to dismiss opposing arguments.

Inoculation is particularly useful in debate situations when you know the audience will hear both sides of an issue. But if your listeners won’t hear the other side and are unlikely to think of counter-arguments on their own, it can be best to avoid the counter-arguments altogether.

“And” Stance

Avoid either/or thinking and adopt an “and” stance. We often assume that if we’re right, someone else must be wrong. But as noted in the Harvard Negotiation Project’s classic book, Difficult Conversations, conflicting views can peacefully coexist. Even if we don’t see eye-to-eye with our listeners, we can acknowledge their beliefs.

This status conferral is often a first step toward a wider, more productive conversation. People want to be heard, and it’s impossible to argue them into submission. So acknowledge differences before asking for change.

Playing Against Type

Most of us make some effort to fit audience expectations and come across as likeable. This audience tuning is natural and useful. But with difficult audiences it can backfire because people know when we’re just saying what they want to hear.


Try playing against type. When listeners expect biased, self-serving arguments, give them the opposite. If you’ve made mistakes, own them. If opponents have legitimate grievances, air them yourself. Such self-critique can be a powerful tool for building credibility with an audience because it goes against their expectations. They figure we must really mean what we say.

How did I make out at the board meeting? With help from the “and” stance, I weathered the withering looks and shared vital information. I listened carefully as one surly board member said the report was one-sided. I sympathized when another spoke of his discomfort with fundraising.

And, I said, fundraising is critical for the organization.

And the topic was now on the table for discussion.

Jesse Scinto is a lecturer in Columbia University’s Strategic Communications programs. He teaches public speaking and persuasion. Find him on Twitter: @jessescinto. Special thanks to Melanie C. Green, University at Buffalo.