Unless you've been sleeping under a rock inside a cave beneath a mountain, you know that the Game of Thrones series has half the world obsessed.
Some might attribute this success to blood, violence and sex. But it's the eloquence of its characters that have drawn some the biggest ooohs and ahhhhs.
The Game of Thrones features several masters who, with a curl of their tongue, can annihilate your psyche, gain your eternal loyalty or sway you to kill for them.
And even among such virtuosos of language and persuasion, Tyrion Lannister stands tall.
There’s a reason that, in a show with characters so beautiful, powerful and skilled in battle, the most beloved is a dwarf who isn’t any of that. What the “half man” has aplenty is intelligence, wit and eloquence.
And one of the most subtle yet effective tricks in Tyrion’s persuasive arsenal is one I call “Verbal Tai Chi”.
“Verbal what??” you might wonder. Or, if you’ve heard of Tai Chi, you'd likely ask: “What's a morning activity for the elderly got to do with persuasion?”
Let me explain.
Tai Chi vs. Boxing
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that’s built around defense rather than offense. Whereas offensive martial arts like Boxing hammer the opponent with powerful strikes, Tai Chi receives the attacker’s force and then redirects it, either in a harmless direction or onto the attackers themselves.
Similarly, when we’re engaged in argument, the natural urge is to be a boxer — to hammer the opposing side with powerful arguments or even verbal attacks.
The “Tai Chi way” would be the opposite: to seize and redirect the opponents’ arguments against themselves.
And this is precisely what Tyrion does, with effects both marvelous and hilarious.
Verbal Tai Chi in Action
In the video below, Tyrion confronts his sister, the Queen. He believes her partially responsible for starting a war they’re now losing, and he is here to fix the disaster.
At 1:23, the Queen defends herself by saying: “I’ve done nothing”.
- Boxing Tyrion might have hit back with: “Yes you have. You messed up!”
- Instead, he agrees with her: “Quite right. You did nothing… when [the King made a stupid mistake that started a war, which we’re losing].”
- Knowing he’s right, the Queen avoids eye-contact.
At 1:40, the Queen downplays the disaster: "[enemy commander] Rob Stark is a child!"
- Boxing Tyrion might have argued back with an insult.
- Instead, he finishes the sentence in a way that refutes her point: “[he’s a child] who’s won every battle he has fought! Do you understand we’re losing the war?”
At 1:59, finally the Queen tries to put Tyrion in his place: “Joffrey is King, and you’re only here to advise him”.
- Boxing Tyrion might have resorted to denial or counter-strikes.
- Instead, Tyrion calmly repeats those exact words: “Joffrey is King, and I’m only here to advise him.” But he again redirects this to his point: “And if the King listens to what I say, the King just might get his [captured family] back.”
Over and over Tyrion refrains from attacking, which would have only escalated the Queen’s defensiveness and the fight.
Instead he uses the Queen’s words against her, thus dissolving both her attacks and her defense with one play. This is Verbal Tai Chi at its best, and the Queen — a fiercely smart talker herself — is left literally speechless.
(Here’s another example — shorter and funnier — where Tyrion escapes death by using the same trick. Notice how he accepts the proposition of death, and plays with it creatively?)
How to use Verbal Tai Chi
Here’s how you might use Verbal Tai Chi yourself. The next time you’re locked in a testy exchange or full-on argument, try this:
- Don't hit back: When the other person fires verbal assaults at you, see if you get the urge to fire back, and resist the urge. Self-awareness is the first step.
- Take over their ideas: Pause and think: Is there an element of truth in what they’ve said? (Hint: there usually is!) And can I use this piece of truth to my advantage? Feel free to creatively reinterpret the meaning of words (you didn’t read it here).
- Redirect: Accept their proposition, then redirect the ideas to support your argument and/or weaken their argument.
Example 1: At a staff meeting, a senior colleague attacks you: "You're totally unqualified to be handling this project."
Boxing response: "Screw you! Why are you always trying to put me down!?"
Tai Chi response: "You're right. I'm entirely unqualified to be running projects the old way - which we know does not work. We need fresh thinking, and everyone here would agree I'm rather qualified for that."
Example 2: You're trying to convince someone that your country should take in refugees. The person says: "Taking in refugees gives us no benefits. None."
Boxing response: "That's so not true! You're completely wrong!"
Tai Chi response: “You might be right... But that's what kindness and humanity IS - It's helping those in need even when we get nothing in return. If we claim to be a kind people of humanity, this shouldn't be about tangible benefits at all."
And that's how it works. Search within their arguments for words and ideas you can work with. Then accept their proposition, and find a way to redirect and reinterpret them to support your own arguments.
Final thoughts: finding the truth in others
I've been using arguments to illustrate the technique, but ideally, it shouldn't be about winning arguments at all.
There's too much of that already. We often debate as if one side must be right and the other wrong. We argue as if winning should be the ultimate goal. And that's neither healthy nor productive.
Because there's some element of truth in most ideas - even those you most disagree with (or especially those you disagree with!). And those people with whom you seem to share no common ground? Even they are right about some things.
If we can learn to see the truth in others' ideas and perspectives... if we can learn to acknowledge them and build on them, maybe we'll start having fewer arguments and more dialogues. Maybe there'll be less rancor and more civility in our discourse.
And maybe our democracies will become less adversarial and more collaborative.
*See here for the first post on Persuasion Lessons from Game of Thrones - how Daenerys dissects and targets her audiences.
- In this article (video), motivation & persuasion master Daniel Pink teaches a technique to get people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do. It's similar to Verbal Tai Chi in that, rather than negating the person's proposition, it accepts it and redirects with surprising, counterintuitive questions.
- Politicians have been using variations of this technique for centuries. Joseph Romm documents a few in his fantastic book Language Intelligence.
*If you enjoyed this article, I find and share tons of other valuable resources on Twitter. Connect with me there: @podiumwisdom