Thursday, April 22, 2010

Coaching Lessons: "How to Be More Persuasive"

What do you think of when you think of persuasion? Aside from Jane Austen, that is.

Do you think that persuasion involves winning a debate, tricking someone into agreeing with you when they really don't, telling them what to do, or seducing them into doing something they don't want to do? Or perhaps you see persuasion in terms of force: of forcing someone to accept your ideas because you allow them no choice in the matter?

Do you always see persuasion in terms of dispossessing someone of his free will? Surely, that is one aspect of persuasion, the one we think of more often, but it does not capture the essence of persuasion: to convince someone of the correctness of your position by using rational argument and respectful phrasing.

Persuasion is involved at all levels of management and leadership. An inexperienced manager, almost by definition, is one who believes that when he gives an order it will naturally be followed, exactly as he wishes. An inexperienced manager sees no need to persuade anyone to do anything. He thinks that his word is sufficient.

And yet, as Dwight Eisenhower famously put it: "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want to get done because he wants to do it." And this cannot happen if you use a trick.

Leadership skills apply in every relationship, whether familial, friendly, collegial, or professional. You cannot live with someone, organize a life with someone, or be friends with someone, without at some time having to persuade him or her to do something that he does not, at first, want to do.

Persuasion used to be a subject of university study. It was called rhetoric, and it involves how you should speak to people, how you should word your sentences, what attitude you should assume, in order to show sufficient respect that they will be open to hearing, and eventually, accepting your point of view.

It is, in an age of text messages, a lost art.

Of course, you do not really persuade anyone when you force them to do what you want them to do or to say what you want them to say. Without free will, there can be no real persuasion.

It is rarely noted, but the old Freudian paradigm for psychoanalytic treatment involves a strong measure of something that resembles persuasion. It's quite interesting to see how it works.

Keep in mind that when a psychoanalyst offers an interpretation-- to the effect that you have an Oedipus complex or that you were unloved as a child-- you do not exactly have a free choice about whether to accept it or not. If you reject it, or resist it, the analyst will ipso facto see your resistance as a symptom. If you disagree, you are sick.

The goal of psychoanalysis is to persuade the patient beyond any doubt of the correctness of a Freudian interpretation. As I have said, the goal is not to make people get well, it is to make them into Freudians.

If persuasion always keeps open the possibility that the person you are trying to persuade has the right to reject your ideas, then psychoanalysis does not really involve persuasion. It is much closer to thought reform, which is the correct term for what is known in the vernacular as brainwashing.

How does the analyst persuade the patient of the correctness of his interpretation? He will certainly marshal his arguments, usually in the form of an indictment, but he will also remain silent for many an hour, punctuating his patient's discourse with occasional Uhs and uh-huhs.

The analyst's silence is presumed to be neutral, to exert no influence on the patient. Analysts believe tht since they do not offer any consequential reactions to their patients' ramblings, they are models of a laissez faire attitude.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you look at an important book from about three decades ago, Jerome Frank's Persuasion and Healing, you will see that psychologists have devised experiments to show how you can influence a conversation by the way you place your uh-huhs.

Here we are talking about a subtle form of unconscious manipulation. A less subtle form is the analyst's silence. After all, psychoanalysis in its purest form amounts to nothing more or less than what we call giving someone the silent treatment.

Being unwilling to engage a conversation with another human being, ignoring his questions and entreaties, refusing to give him a direct answer, and failing to reciprocate any and all expressions of personal information and emotion... all of this means one and only one thing. It means that the analyst is shunning the patient, treating him as a pariah, ostracizing him... to the point where he is going to feel like he is being punished, even tortured, for failing to show a sufficiently strong conviction of the truth of the analyst's interpretation.

The analyst's silent treatment makes the patient feel worthless. Then the analyst will offer to analyze the patient's low self-esteem.

You would think that any normally self-respecting individual would simply walk away. True enough. Unfortunately, there is nothing very normal about the psychoanalytic process. Either the patient is someone who has emotional problems that he believes can only be solved by psychoanalysis, or else he is a trainee whose professional future hinges on how well he becomes a true Freudian believer.

In either case the patient who feels ostracized by his analyst will suffer such distress over the nature of that relationship that he will be more likely to agree to whatever his analyst wants him to agree to. You can call it persuasion if you like. I would not.

Surely, we can do better. We can provide some tactics to persuade people while showing them respect and while being willing to accept the possibility that they disagree with you.

Here I am relying on Alexandra Levit's excellent summary of the work of Prof. Robert Cialdini. Link here.

Cialdini was addressing issues involving management and leadership, but clearly his ideas apply to other forms of life experience. Or better, you should consider carefully how you can apply them to other areas of your life.

First principle: say yes to others if you want them to say yes to you. Human beings are natural-born reciprocators, and if you begin a conversation by agreeing with something your listener has said, that person will be more inclined to agree with whatever you have to add to the conversation.

This means that if you want to persuade anyone of anything, but also, if you want to negotiate or to get along with someone, you should always avoid rejectionist rhetoric. You should not demean, criticize, or dismiss what your friend is offering. And you should not be confrontational.

Rest assured that when someone presents an idea that you think is so manifestly inferior to your own, it is very difficult to reformulate some part of the argument so that it becomes a cogent and plausible point of view.

More so if you tend to especially critical or defensive.

Second, when you are trying to persuade someone of something, try to show how it is consistent with a position he has already taken. People do not like to appear to be illogical or inconsistent. You are not asking someone to change his mind, you are not asking him to sacrifice his most closely-held beliefs. You are asking him to be more consistent.
Thus, you are being more respectful.

Third, speak with authority. Cialdini does not mean that you should fake authority, or posture at being in charge. He advises you, even if you are lower level staff member, to find an area of your business where you can specialize to the point where you become the go-to guy for questions about it. The other side of this is to say that you are not going to be very effectively persuading people of subjects contained in topics you know little about.

Fourth, you are more likely to persuade people who are your friends. You ought, Cialdini recommends, to have put in the time and energy to develop friendships with people. The more you have demonstrated that you think well of them, the more you have shown that you see them at their best, and the more you show that you want only the best for them... the more they are likely to believe that when you are trying to persuade them of something you are not trying to put one over on them.

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