A Lesson From Abe Lincoln on ‘Disarming’ Your Adversaries

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The 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln was one of the best when it came to mastering the art of positive persuasion – what I often refer to as, Winning Without Intimidation. He knew how to make friends out of enemies, and keep conflict to a minimum. I believe the following story is an excellent example of the president’s abilities in this regard:

“…{On one occasion}, when another official sharply criticized Lincoln’s judgment, the president responded to a reporter’s interrogation by saying he had great respect for the other man, and if this official had concerns about him, there must be some truth to it. Such discretion disarmed divisiveness that was intended to draw Lincoln into side-skirmishes, it won the hearts of his friends and foes and it allowed Lincoln to maintain focus on more important issues.”

What Lincoln did was to utilize the tactic of “deflection.” This means to softly “parry” a strong challenge or accusation, deflecting it into another direction where it is now harmless. Allow me to explain by way of a boxing analogy.

If you watch a boxing match you’ll notice that when one fighter throws a jab (a straight punch, usually with the left hand) the intended target will, very coolly, simply wait until the punch almost reaches him. He’ll then just parry it away with his right hand by using only a very slight flick of the wrist. The “rub” is that, the harder the punch is thrown, the less effort it takes to deflect it into a harmless result.

This is what Lincoln did, and what you can do, as well.

Use The Other Person’s Force…To Your Advantage

When someone says something to you, or about you, don’t fight it, battle it, or try and stop it. It won’t work. In fact, it typically will have only the opposite effect of drawing you more heavily into the confrontation and providing fodder for the conflict. Instead, do what Lincoln did. Compliment the offender and leave him and his comment without power to harm you. You can do this one of two ways:

1. If you’re told what someone said about you, then, like Lincoln, express your admiration for that person and suggest that, “If Pat said it, it’s something I should at least look into.”

This parry, or deflection, will totally disarm the person who just related Pat’s words. He or she cannot argue with you, because you did not argue with them. They can’t debate the point, because you’ve politely refused to debate. And (perhaps, most importantly), they cannot quote your “defensive” response to anyone else, including Pat, because you did not respond defensively.

Another positive consequence of this is that often your kind and complimentary words will make their way back to Pat, who will now have a newly-found respect for you and think of you (and feel about you) much more positively than before.

If something is being told to you that is meant to be offensive or disruptive, directly acknowledge to the person that he/she may just have a point and it’s something you need to consider.

If that’s not appropriate, simply thank the person for bringing it up. You can then decide whether or not a further response or explanation is necessary. An excellent parry, or deflection, is to simply say, “That’s a good question” or “You make a valid point.”

Don’t Confuse This With Being A Doormat

Please understand and keep in mind: I’m not saying not to answer and/or stick up for yourself. Taking a definite position might be very necessary. What the deflection does, however, is keep it impersonal. It allows for positive detachment so that the answer can be of best service to everyone and not indicative of negative personal feelings.

Here are three practice exercises you can do over the next week to strengthen yourself in this area:

  1. Work on deflection via parrying every time you are confronted, regardless of the lightness or seriousness of the confrontation.
  2. Watch other people during their conflicts and observe how they handle a “left jab.” Do they deflect it with a classy parry, or do they get caught up in trying to “stop” the verbal punch? How does the option they took (consciously or unconsciously) work out for them?
  3. Watch interviews on television and observe the dynamic. Note the ones who seem most efficient in the art of deflection, and determine to model them in future similar situations of your own.

And, the following is perhaps the most powerful of all ways to prepare:

Mentally rehearse a situation in which someone verbally attacks or criticizes you or passes along a similar remark from someone else as in the example with President Lincoln.

See yourself, in your mind’s eye, responding with calmness and serenity, completely in control of your own emotions and thus, in control of the situation. Your response is a perfect parry; a smooth deflection that leaves everyone feeling good about themselves and the situation. Imagine how terrific you feel afterwards.

If you can do it in your mind, you can do it in a real-life situation.
Just as an astronaut training for a mission goes through numerous simulated missions before ever actually going into space, you’ll find rehearsing in your mind before the event ever takes place puts you nine steps ahead of the game…in a ten-step game.

When you become really good at doing this, you’ll find it to be one of the most self-empowering (not to mention, fun!) aspects of your interpersonal communications.

And, you’ll be the one that others see as a master of people skills and persuasion, and a person of powerful influence.

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  • m

    Lincoln’s “positive persuasion” ran much more to jailing, forcing newspaper business closures, & military invasion. 700,000+ killed (positively dead). Been watching too much Spielberg spin, maybe?

    The point of parrying, in boxing, is counter punching.

  • Very nice article Bob! So many people waste so much energy arguing all the time, and insisting that they are right, instead of actually listening and possibly learning from hearing a different point of view.

    • Lynda: Thank you. I appreciate your feedback. And, I definitely agree with you that too much energy is wasted on insisting we are right, and refusing to learn. Please also keep in mind, however, that another part of this article IS the persuasion aspect. An excellent way to gently move someone to another viewpoint (as Lincoln often did) is to – rather than argue and go into a defensive mode – compliment the other person. This will typically allow them to not get wrapped up in THEIR defensive frame and instead, reconsider their current thoughts. It’s only after someone buys into us first, that we can then persuade them to a conclusion that benefits everyone involved. Again, thank you for your feedback!

  • What a wonderful, thought provoking post. While I have a strong aversion to boxing, the analogy works well to clarify the process of deflection. Points well taken and now set to carry out the three practice tasks – without gloves!

    • Tara: Thank you for your kind feedback, despite your discomfort with the boxing analogy. I know you’ll do all three parts very successfully. Though, without gloves? Be sure and wrap your hands correctly. 😉

  • Amy Wells

    Such an excellent way to handle these awkward situations. I’ll keep the word “deflection” close to my heart. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    • Amy: Thank you. Appreciate your very kind and complimentary feedback!

  • Janice Fantinic

    Very enlightening arguments ! Great wisdom ! Thanks for sharing !

  • Janice: My pleasure. Thank YOU!

  • Sean O’Shea

    Great article Bob! Always, always, always working to better hone this skill! Thanks!

    -Sean

    • Sean: Thank you! Very glad you enjoyed it!

  • marie-anne

    Your article has offered me tremendous insight into the art of living graciously. I’m no doormat, as those who have felt the razor sharp edge of my tongue when necessary will never forget it, but after reading your thoughts on this subject, I realise it would be great fun to “disarm” my detractors by smiling and not jumping into the fray when provoked. Thank you.

    • Marie-anne: Thank you. So glad you enjoyed the article. A key point is that handling an insult or other potentially difficult situation with tact and diplomacy should *never* be confused with being a doormat. They are not the same. Tact is strength; not servitude. By and large, people who become defensive and angry and, as a result, argue/insult back typically don’t accomplish their goal, IF their goal is to actually persuade that person (which, by the way, still might never happen if that person is tightly enough bound to their position) or, often more importantly, those who are onlookers or even stakeholders in the situation. Thank you again for your kind words about the post. Very appreciated! {And, by the way, as you so accurately said, “when necessary.” There’s a time and place for everything. Wisdom is knowing the when and where.}

  • Sean: Thank you! Very glad you enjoyed it!

  • ben

    Yeah, Lincoln was so great at winning people over that he started a war that got 700,000 Americans killed, 1.5 million maimed for life, and from which our country has NEVER fully recovered!

    • m

      The sanitized & sweetened “parable”, versus reality. Many commenters don’t know; worse, they don’t want to know.