Ah, the holidays: Harder to swallow even than a regifted fruitcake is the stubborn inability of our loved ones to see our (obviously correct) points of view on almost everything. Vegans dine with hard-core carnivores; drinkers and smokers sit across the table from abstainers; NRA members trade niceties with advocates of gun control; lovers of shiny new toys trade gifts with serious recyclers; Obama voters gloat (or try to hold their tongues) among the Romneyites.   You’d think it would be a great time to try to convince one another of the merits of our different points of view. But what we think is persuasion is more often just poorly disguised coercion.

Persuasion vs. Coercion at the Holiday Table

Pro tips on communication strategies from Frank and Robert Oppenheimer.

K.C. Cole is the author, most recently, of Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium and eight other nonfiction books, most featured on her website, www.kccole.com. She's currently a professor at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.

Ultimately, Frank went on to build what he called a “museum of awareness” in San Francisco, a museum, really, of persuasion. He called it an Exploratorium so it wouldn’t sound like “museum,” where experts tell visitors what they should know; it was (and is) more like a playground packed with sophisticated scientific toys meant to be poked, prodded, pushed, pulled, listen to, yelled at, spun around, climbed on, fiddled with, sung to, clapped at, watched with wonder. It’s a place for people to experience what it feels like to really discover something.
One of Frank’s favorite stories was about the woman who’d spent the day there, then went home and wired a lamp. There is nothing in the Exploratorium that tells you how to wire a lamp. The woman had merely gotten a taste of that great feeling that comes from figuring it out for yourself. Which is ultimately what persuasion is about.

We’re persuaded when we feel we’ve understood something well enough to make up our own minds. And that makes all of us smarter, better people, no matter what side of the issues (or the table) we’re on.