In the IT business, as in any business, we all have the task of making our point of view understood. Our executives need to convince our investors that the company is worthy of their support. Our sales need to convince hospital executives and case managers of the same thing.

The interesting thing to keep in mind is this: our users — the case managers, social workers, and nurses we serve — have the same task. They have to deal with patients and their families at pivotal times in their lives. They often have to convince those folks of two things at the same time: (1) Nothing will ever be the same in your lives, and (2) everything will work out. This is difficult work. They have to be able to speak with empathy and with authority at the same time. They have to be able to convince people to do certain things (go to rehab, cooperate with home health care, etc) in difficult circumstances. They, too, need to convince people of their point of view. That’s their job!

This work of convincing people used to be called “rhetoric.” Today we think of “rhetoric” as the stuff politicians shout into microphones. Indeed, it is. And, so is the advice our support staff dispense all the time on the phone. So is the advice our clinical account executives offer at Discharge Boot Camp sessions. It’s all rhetoric, in the best sense of the word.

The point I’m making is this: we, in information technology are in the rhetoric business. All of us. We all have to speak with authority and empathy, to each other, to customers, investors, and all the other stakeholders. We serve users whose success at rhetoric can mean the difference between a bad life and good life for patients. Everything we do is to help them succeed at that work. So, let’s try to understand this rhetoric, OK?

We don’t have to make all this up. Smart people have been thinking about rhetoric through the ages. Aristotle wrote a book about it, with the catchy title “On Rhetoric.”

What is the source of our authority when we ask people to believe certain things and do certain things? How do we convince people of things? We don’t have to give loud speeches to do this. Quite the opposite: that’s a very limited kind of rhetoric. If you followed the recent political campaign you know how well loud speeches and sound bites work to convince you of things: not very well!

What is the source of our authority? Aristotle says it’s a combination of three things.

  • logos: the message we have to convey.
  • pathos: our understanding of the people we’re trying to convince.
  • ethos: who we are and what we represent.

logos, pathos, and ethos. That’s what it’s all about. What do you have to say, who are you saying it to, and who are you?

Here’s an example. Our VP told the students at a recent Boot Camp that they need to comply with the notorious Three Midnight rule. That rule is this: for Medicare (the federal health-care system for senior citizens) to pay for a nursing home stay, the patient must have been hospitalized for three midnights or more in an acute-care hospital. Two midnights only — no Medicare. She was working to convince them not to try to play games with this rule. They were questioning her about how arbitrary it is, and she had to hold her ground.

What’s the logos here? Well, our VP understands the three-midnight rule and knows how to explain it in detail. That’s the message she has to convey.

What’s the pathos? she can say, I know this is hard, and arbitrary, and sometimes you feel like the bad cop when you enforce this rule. She has empathy with the people she’s talking to. When politicians say “I feel your pain,” they’re trying to build up their pathos. But it often seems fake when politicians do it.

What’s the ethos?. she has worked as a case manager for many years. She knows, from her own experience, the complexities of finding a good place for a patient to stay after leaving the hospital. She knows how hard it is to enforce hard rules. This is important: the people she talks to know that she IS one of them.

So, she has an excellent combination of these three things, logos, pathos, and ethos. Together they give her a lot of authority. She talks, and people listen.

Each of us needs to consider our own logos, pathos, and ethos when we’re talking to people.

We need the logos: we have to know what we’re talking about. But that’s not nearly enough. In fact, if all we have is logos, it can backfire big time, even if we have a lot of it. None of us really enjoy being told what’s what.

We need to be able to get into the skins of the people we’re talking to. We need to have the pathos. For technical people, this can be very hard. Knowing how someone feels about what we’re saying is very important.

And, we need to have the ethos: We need to have some prestige. We’ve all had the experience of calling somebody and saying, I’m from your IT supplier. We do this because it’s very important that the person recognize what we represent. We all have lots of personal dignity. But ethos only comes when the people we’re talking to recognize that dignity. ethos is the reason politicians wear suits and physicians wear white coats.

If you’ve read this far, thanks! I invite you to think about your personal sources of authority. What’s your logos, pathos, and ethos? Everybody handles these three things differently. How do you handle them?