Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ): Unconventional strategies to influence reluctant minds

He stole the elections. Lyndon B Johnson won America’s democratic party’s nomination election in 1948 by 87 votes out of a total of 988,295 votes cast. Such a razor thin narrow margin! But 6 days after the elections, it was revealed that 202 ballots were cast for LBJ fraudulently. These names were added at the end of the voters list with the same pen and penmanship – after all the votes were cast! 

Allegedly, fellow Texan political boss George Parr helped him rig the votes. And when the case reached the supreme court, he got timely help from justice Abe Fortas – who was his friend to get it resolved in his favour. LBJ had a knack of getting people to do what he wanted. Even when it was dangerous.

Once he was in the senate, he rose the ranks really really quickly too. By 1953, he was elected as the senate democratic leader! He is known as the most effective senate leader in history! He shmoozed and got things done. And persuaded people who were in opposition consistently!

The LBJ Treatment

LBJ got independents to become democrats. And staunch southern republicans to support the civil rights act. His confidence knew no bar.

But LBJ was not always confident. As a youngster, he was extremely insecure. He was troubled and rebellious. He didn’t have the can-do air about him that later came to personify him.

How did an insecure teen convert into somebody who could persuade anybody to do anything?

It’s simple really. One day, LBJ realized that just like him, the whole world is insecure. Each and every person harbours some sort of insecurity. 

Once he realized that, he made it a point to learn how to channelize it. Historians who studied LBJ call it “The Johnson Treatment.” Intense conversations that would last 10 minutes or a few hours. During which, LBJ would envelop his target, understand their insecurities, and give them a way out. It was a work of art. 

But it wasn’t complex. It was more or less doing 2 things really really well.

1. Build rapport

Brothers Harry and Max Hart had started a men’s clothing store in Chicago in 1872. They were the pioneers of nationwide newspaper advertising to grow their business. To help them run ads, they hired George Dyer.

One day, Max and George Dyer got into an argument. How long or short should a good ad be? Max argued that people can’t read a lot. Short ads are better. Dyer disagreed. He argued that he could get Max to read each and every word on a long newspaper page. 

“I’ll only tell you the headline. That would be “This page is all about Max Hart!””

Everyone of us is a little bit of a narcissist. We will never get bored of hearing about ourselves. Our names. Our strengths. Our preferences.

That’s what the father of self development: Dale Carnegie learnt one day when he was misjudged for being an excellent botanist. 

At a party, Carnegie was talking to a botanist. At the end of the party, the botanist goes to the host and tells them that he had a wonderful time. Because Carnegie was an interesting conversationalist and an excellent botanist.

But Carnegie knew nothing about botany. He just listened well and asked questions. And used the botanist’s name frequently during the conversation!

Which kept the botanist hooked. So hooked that he didn’t even realize he was talking to someone who knew nothing about botany.

LBJ did the same. But with a much higher intensity. To the onlookers, it sometimes even looked creepy. He would get extremely close in someone else’s space, and focus so truly on them that they would feel like they are in a hypnotic trance. His face would be mere millimeters away from others who were getting the treatment.

With his focus, he would then guide the conversation deftly. He would use their first names or nicknames a lot, even while other senators tried to be formal. Because proximity and friendliness creates rapport. 

2. Allay their insecurities

During the conversation, LBJ would focus on finding a way to allay their insecurities. He would acknowledge their fears. And then flip it around. Because LBJ knew that at the opposite end of their insecurities lay their dreams. 

When LBJ was rallying votes to help pass the civil rights act, he knew that he needed the opposition Republicans support as well. One day, he focused on the republican senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois – the same state where Abe Lincoln came from.

While everyone else called him senator Dirksen, LBJ called him Ev. He flattered the senator at every chance he got. Because LBJ realized that the senator was hungry for recognition. 

And then during one intense conversation, he dropped the hammer: “Ev, you come with me on this bill, and 200 years from now, schoolchildren will know only two names: Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen!”

Dirksen didn’t only support the act, but also rallied a few other Republicans to help pass the bill!

Are there only two steps?

There are two universal truths. Everyone is a narcissist. And everyone has insecurities. But these are two sides of the same coin. Because these are the dual manifestations of the ego:

  1. An inflated ego drives our narcissism, 
  2. while a fragile ego underlies our insecurities.

The ego is more than a psychological term. It is responsible for our sense of identity. When you’re persuading someone, you’re essentially navigating between their inflated and fragile egos.

Focus on the person. Allay their fears and encourage their dreams. And they will do anything for you.

That’s how LBJ got the medicare and social security laws passed, and the civil rights act passed, and also how he got the government to escalate American intervention in the Vietnamese war – even when the majority were reluctant!

Action Summary:

  • Keep your focus on the person you are speaking to. Not on yourself. Make it all about them. Be their fan. Use their name to build a sense of connection and rapport. Know what they like and dislike. Be encouraging of their actions. Talk to their inflated egos.
  • Acknowledge their fears. And connect your goals to their dreams. Allay their insecurities and help them safeguard their fragile egos.

Quote Unquote

“People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams,
justify their failures,
allay their fears,
confirm their suspicions,
and help them throw rocks at their enemies.”

  • Blair Warren