There are two ways to move people: either by force or by persuasion. That choice is always yours. Persuasion is the ability to get what you want from others while making them feel genuinely good about themselves and, in consequence, about you. Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, built her business on this principle: Everyone wears an invisible sign around their neck that says ‘Make me feel important.’
Persuasion enables people to act on their own volition rather than under your direction. Dale Carnegie said, “Ultimately people do things for their own reasons, not ours.” To get someone to act as you wish, you must give them a reason that suggests a personal benefit – that addresses the singular question we all subconsciously ask when faced by a choice: What’s in it for me?
Force, on the other hand, aims at controlling others, not cooperating or collaborating with them. It’s focused more on our self-interest and typically plays on their negative emotions to induce compliance. Those who use such pressure endeavour to make others feel guilty or look foolish. Unlike persuasion, force is invariably unsustainable: people may begrudgingly comply but they’ll remember the need to even up the score and, one day, sabotage the outcome.
Self-control is the essence of persuasion. If you can’t control your feelings, you can’t influence others. We are emotional creatures: we make decisions based on our feelings, not our reasoning. As Daniel Goleman, author of two seminal works (Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence), has advised: “The emotional mind takes its beliefs to be absolutely true and so discounts any evidence to the contrary.” This implies that we are all, by our natures, hypocrites – convinced of our righteousness and unwilling to acknowledge our biases. Curing that affliction of mind is quite hard, because it follows that part of the problem is we don’t believe there is a problem
Persuaders aren’t frustrated or beguiled by resistance or objections. They respond appropriately, one might say strategically, by using time-tested verbal coping skills. They mentally rehearse their words – when you can do it in your mind, you can more easily do it in real life. They relax, calm their thoughts and speak in a slower, lower voice. Calm is their default setting. They control their anger, annoyance or frustration and don’t hold grudges. They know that, when that happens, others are able to live in their head rent-free.
Persuaders realize that the typical first response to their novel ideas or their advice is “no,” because people require a bit of time to get used to new and difficult propositions. They practice positive detachment, particularly about sensitive issues like politics or religion. Dispassion does not mean non-passion. Rather it conveys confidence.
Often not saying anything at all is the smartest thing you can do: when you don’t know what to say or how to say it, don’t speak and reveal your ignorance or disdain. When you’ve reached a dead end in conversation with a friend, just agree to disagree. When you hear negative criticism, consider the source and never take it personally. Disagreement is normal, not an act of treason.
Every argument is a clash of belief systems – what people believe is what they think is true. If you don’t understand how they think, you can’t persuade them. We assume we see the world as it is. Psychologists call this naive realism. When others don’t agree with us, we think they either don’t know the facts or are blinded by their own self-interests or ideologies. We fail to appreciate that everyone is blinded by those same things.
Persuasion demands perspective. There are usually three versions of the truth – yours, theirs and what actually happened. We see the world from the perspective of our perceptions, not as it is but rather as we are. In truth, reality exists; seeing it is quite another matter. Steven R. Covey said we must seek first to understand before we can be understood. This counsel suggests that a good place to look for reality may be where you least expect to find it: in the minds of those who oppose you.
To persuade, start by giving others the benefit of the doubt. Clarify their mixed messages. Why escalate what you are unsure of? Don’t jump to premature, hence unnecessary, conclusions. Openly acknowledge their self-concept and never shame or embarrass them. Recognize when your ego gets in the way of your objectives: What really is the point of proving that someone else is wrong? You don’t win arguments by arguing with others; you only cement their resistance.
Persuasion is not about you; it’s about them. Be vulnerable and become relatable. You’re not perfect, so just admit it. People generally respond better to those who seem human and who experience occasional lapses of self-confidence. Win the argument by acknowledging their position first. It vacuums the mind and makes them better listeners. See your people puzzles as opportunities and adventures, not as problems or frustrations. Things become what you make of them.
Persuasion is the language of strength, the ability to say things in a way that makes others receptive to you and your ideas. Saying the right thing in the right way at the right time produces magical results. Some call this tact – the ability to tell a person he has an open mind when you suspect he has a hole in his head.
You’ve likely heard this before: how you say it is more important than what you say. In my negotiating courses, I call this the art of inducing the desired perception. If you want magical results, you have to learn some magical phrases. And be careful about using humour. While it’s great for breaking the tension, if you have to say “just kidding,” it probably wasn’t funny.
When opposing views arise, pivot to your position via common ground: “I really appreciate your feelings about this. Like you, I want ….” Then make your point. Being nice is never enough; you need power to be influential. A lot of nice people aren’t influential or successful. In truth, people don’t take advantage of you because you’re nice. They do so simply because you allow yourself to be taken advantage of. So persuaders also know where, and how, to draw the line.