Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Supposing We Presuppose

An experience with my children this past weekend reminded me of a technique that I've used for some time that I wanted to share with you today.

When trying to get my son to dress himself, he keep picking out things and then deciding he didn't want to wear them. To get some traction I tried something different. I chose two shirts and asked "Do you want to wear this one or that one?" He quickly pointed to one and we were on our way towards being dressed!

The technique here is called Presupposition. Essentially, it lays out a concept that must be accepted as true for a sentence to be understood. For example, if I was to say "Paulo drives fast", there a some things that must be accepted for the sentence to even make sense:
  • Paulo must exist.
  • Driving is something done by Paulo.
  • Some measure of how Paulo drives is possible.
This sounds simplistic (as is true of most truly practical things) but consider the presupposition in the sentence "Will that be cash or credit?" This sentence presupposes that you will be paying. What a great way to get the notion of paying to be accepted by a potential buyer!

What makes this powerful is linking a concept that you'd like to be accepted as true, with neutral topics or choices that presuppose the acceptance of that concept.

To demonstrate, let's start with the sentence "Using web services will save development time." Out of the gate, this is a sentence that is easy to argue about. But if we add some presuppositions it softens the blow: "You may be aware of how much development time will be saved by using web services."

The phrasing with the word "aware" enhances the acceptance of this sentence. You may be aware of it or you may not be aware of it, but we've already presupposed that using web services will save development time.

Another great word is "already". Let's improve our sentence even further: "You may already have started to become aware of how much development time will be saved by using web services."

Notice how adding more and more presuppositions can build the pattern of yes, yes, yes as it is understood so that the final yes can just fall right out. Building in presuppositions allows you to get to a state of acceptance quickly.

Of course, none of that matters unless you have some rapport to begin with and the content is ultimately acceptable. In cases where you are stuck arguing about the window-dressing, this will help you get to a real discussion about the cost of the house that much quicker. In cases where you don't want to discuss the house quite yet, this will help you keep the conversation about the window-dressing until you are ready to introduce the cost of the house.

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