Saving Face is a Necessary Art – Even When the Face Isn’t Yours

By: Michael McQueen

The human instinct to avoid social humiliation is deep. Psychologists point to shame as being one of the deepest fears held nearly universally by human beings, coming close to the fear of death.

We all have the impulse to save face, and many of us get particularly defensive, aggressive or withdrawn when that impulse is challenged.

This fear of losing our dignity plays out in important ways in our everyday conversations. It is this very fear that is often the cause of us advocating opinions long after we have abandoned them, for fear of embarrassing ourselves by acknowledging our prior ignorance.

For this reason, in any context of discussion or persuasion, maintaining an environment in which both parties feel safe and respected is essential. When this environment is threatened, one or both parties is likely to lash out in aggressiveness or double down in defensiveness. If you are in a position of trying to persuade someone, saving face is essential – even if it’s their face that your saving.

The authors of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations point to how vitally important this dynamic is. They suggest that the first key ingredient when engaging in high stakes conversations must be mutual respect. “As soon as people perceive that others don’t respect them, the conversation immediately becomes unsafe and dialogue comes to screeching halt. Why? Because respect is like air. If you take it away, it’s all people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose—it is now about defending dignity.”[1]

How to Protect Someone’s Dignity

One of the most helpful techniques I have ever come across for safeguarding dignity in the process of persuasion is one called ‘feel/felt/found.’ This approach is a powerful way to protect someone’s ego by allowing them to come to a point of realization at their own pace, and in their own way.

At the core of this technique is the notion of validation. It’s about recognizing that the way the other person feels and making it clear that what they believe or how they see the world is entirely reasonable – so much so that you can personally identify with it.

These are the three components of the framework:

1. Feel

The first element of this technique is to acknowledge how the other person feels about an idea or issue. Even though you may be presenting a view that is dramatically different to how the other person currently sees things, it’s important to start by affirming their current perspective. This creates safety and neutralizes the ego reflex of defensiveness. It lets the other party know you accept and respect them – and that they are not alone.

Some phrases that characterize this validation could include:

  • I understand how you feel…
  • I can see how you’d think that…
  • I can only imagine…
  • That perspective must make perfect sense considering…

It’s important to recognise that this empathy should not be disingenuous or merely tokenistic. It’s likely that sincere empathy with another’s experience will benefit you as much as it does them.

2. Felt

The second step is to adopt a position of personal or referred empathy. They key is to reveal that you have shared their view or felt the same way at some stage – or that you know others who have. Again, this creates safety for the other person at not feeling alone or unusual.

This was one of the techniques St Paul famously used when giving his defence of King Agrippa in the Caesarea. The Biblical account in Acts Chapter 26 sees Paul offering his reasons for converting to Christianity and imploring the king to consider doing the same – an audacious move if ever there was one.

As he began delivering his case, Paul said, “I too, at one point believed…” This very sentence was more than merely biographical – it was deliberately disarming. He was validating the very worldview he once held – and one which had seen him arrest and persecute Christians in much the same way he himself was now experiencing. So effective was Paul’s rhetorical prowess that at the end of his delivery, King Agrippa responded, “In such a short time, you are nearly persuading me to become a Christian.”[2]

Some phrases that acknowledge that you or others you know have shared the view of someone you’re looking to persuade could be:

  • That’s quite a common perspective…
  • Many people I work with have felt the same way…
  • I can certainly relate to that point of view…[3]

3. Found

The final step is to highlight the factors that shifted your view or the opinions of someone you know.[4] Pointing to the changed views of others can be powerful because it creates social proof while avoiding a combative or adversarial tone.

Some phrases that explain a change in yours or another’s view could be:

  • What we’ve found over years of doing this is…
  • It turns out that…
  • When my friend looked closer, they found that…

The feel/felt/found method is not foolproof, but it offers a powerful framework for introducing a different perspective in non-confrontational way. The person is invited to consider a different way of seeing things without being forced into a position of shame or embarrassment for having held their prior opinions. Persuading someone by means of a method such as this is, more often than not, far more effective than the argumentative presentation of hard facts and logic. Usher someone into an alternative perspective through reasoned and sincere empathy, and its likely both them and their egos will thank you for it – and better yet, you might win them over.

[1] Patterson, K 2013, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Brilliance Audio, Michigan, p. 71.

[2] Acts 26

[3] Hogan, K 2006, Covert Persuasion, Wiley, New York, p. 90.

[4] Jolles, R 2013, How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence without Manipulation, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, p. 137.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash  

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