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How to Win Votes and Influence Protestors

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Whether you support them or not, Quebec students are giving us all a valuable lesson in leadership.

When Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced relatively small increases in tuition fees that were already the lowest in Canada, he was speaking from the head.

When Quebec students responded by boycotting classes and taking to the streets, they were reacting from the heart.

For over 100 days now, each side has carried on their own one-sided conversation, with neither appearing to be able to even understand the other -- as the most recent breakdown in talks has demonstrated. There is a good reason for that.

The premier has failed to understand the power of passion and collective narrative. His approach is akin to using data about the dangers of smoking to try to convince someone to quit. While it makes sense, using data and logic alone ignores the addiction and the powerful sense of satisfaction, pleasure, and even community that smokers enjoy. Just as logic alone rarely helps in the effort to curb smoking, it hasn't worked to stop the student protests.

In keeping with the great student protests of the past that have permanently changed society, Quebec's students have built a narrative that incorporates the past, ongoing public and government commitments to higher education; the present, in which students are facing mounting debts to pay for tuition; and an uncertain future, in which post-secondary degrees do not guarantee good jobs and fulfilling careers. Woven into this narrative is the drama unfolding on the world stage, as Greece and other European countries struggle with debt, and the arguments on the distribution of wealth continue.

Against this collective narrative, Premier Charest's decision to ground tuition fee increases on appeals to logic and reason was bound to fail.

However, the lesson for leaders is not that they have to back away from tough decisions that need to be made.

Rather, it is to recognize the collective narrative that is unfolding. To begin, you have to show that you are listening and that you understand the other person or group's position. Repeat the arguments your opponents are making, simply by saying "What I think you're trying to say is..."
Once you show you're listening and understand, you can advance your own position, couched in a narrative that the other person can understand.

A dollars and cents argument that says tuition must be increased because it is the lowest in Canada will not, and has not, resonated with students who view their opposition as a matter of social justice and a better future for society as a whole.

When Premier Charest returns to the bargaining table, he must make the case that the increase in tuition will achieve those goals. He cannot let the students own emotion. He must build this narrative for a shared future, one with prosperity and opportunity for Quebec. Only then can the two sides understand each other and come to an agreement that will bring an end to the protests on the streets of Montreal.

It's a lesson that all leaders, in government and business, need to take to heart as they make tough decisions in an era of uncertainty.