I recently heard a project manager in a software services company mention a ‘very important’ book on persuasion that she passed on to her team. I was curious why she liked it.
S: It’s vital we persuade our clients. My team must learn to use the right words to convince them they’re wrong, and get them to change their thinking so we can do what we need to do.
SD: You convince your clients they’re wrong and want to change their thinking so they’ll agree for you to do what you want, even if they don’t agree? And use persuasion strategies rather than maybe facilitate them through a collaborative decision making process and find ways to meld ideas and agree together?
S: They don’t want to agree and we don’t want them to collaborate. They start off wanting it their way. From years of working with these sorts of problems, we know what they need better than they do. That’s why we need to use the best persuasion techniques to change their minds.
I found the conversation unsettling.
WHAT IS PERSUASION – AND WHY IS IT DISRESPECTFUL?
When I looked up persuasion, seems Aristotle defined it with the terms Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Google defines it as an ‘act of convincing’ ‘to put his/her audience into a state of conflict’. The concept has been around a long time – probably since God persuaded the Serpent to eat the apple.
Sales strategies employ persuasion to convince people to buy; doctors and healthcare professionals employ biased stories to encourage patients to act, or behave, in ways the docs consider beneficial; coaches use influencing strategies to persuade clients to make the changes the coach recommends.
But these strategies are largely ineffective: Not only will people not do what the influencer wants them to do, but they’ll most likely distrust the influencer even if it turns out the influencer is accurate.
By persuading another to do what you want them to do you’re taking away their agency, their personal power, and usurping it for your own need to be right. Not to mention preventing a more robust, and dare I say more creative, outcome to emerge.
My definition is a bit different: persuasion is an influencer’s attempt to get another person to do what the influencer wants, regardless of its efficacy, regardless of the omission of a potentially more creative solution, and even when it goes against the person’s wishes.
Persuaders assume they’re ‘right’. I once ran a Buying Facilitation® training program for the Covey Leadership Center. They were the most manipulative sales folks I’d ever met. Given that Covey espoused spiritual values, I was surprised. When I questioned their use of persuasion tactics I was told: “Of course we use persuasion tactics! It’s our responsibility to convince people to use the practices we espouse!”
PERSUASION BREAKS SPIRITUAL LAWS
For me, trying to convince another to do what you want them to do breaks a spiritual law: everyone has the right to their own opinions, beliefs, choices, and actions, and the right to behave according to their own self-interest and values. I believe it’s disrespectful and an act of hubris, even if I think – especially if I ‘know’! – I’m right. No one, no one, can be ‘right’ for another person. Not to mention being ‘right’ is subjective and not necessarily ‘right’.
I looked up ‘persuasion strategies’ to learn what ‘experts’ suggest. They all include finely honed tactics and subliminal convincer strategies:
* Find common ground! * Use their names often! * Prepare for arguments! * Make it seem beneficial to them! * Be confident! * Flatter them and appeal to their emotions! *Motivate action!
Ploys to manipulate, to influence at all costs.
But what’s the cost? A disgruntled, resentful buyer. A client or patient who won’t use your services again and becomes distrusting. The loss of collaboratively thinking together that can discover an outcome that’s win/win for both and potentially even more effective over time than the influencer’s suggestions.
Regardless of the outcome, win/lose just doesn’t exist. It’s either win/win or lose/lose. If everyone doesn’t win, everyone loses. By using force instead of real power to enable the Other to discover her own route to excellence, you’re disrespecting them.
Why, I ask, would anyone want to persuade another to go beyond their own beliefs, or choices, or intentions? Maybe because it’s the only way they can get what they want? Maybe because they believe the other is harming themselves? Maybe because of a political, or scientific, argument? Whatever the case, persuasion is not only disrespectful, but ineffective.
- An ‘I’m right so you should listen to me’ framework operates from win/lose, disrespect, and distrust (‘I obviously know better than you’).
- Persuasion uses judgmental language based on an ‘I know/you don’t’ framework, making the other person ‘stupid’ or ‘unaware’ – certainly ‘less-than’.
- Persuasion ignores another’s needs, feelings, and considerations, and offers no room for a more robust solution based on the knowledge the Other has of their own environment.
- Persuasion assumes only one person understands the full fact pattern of what’s going on, thereby ignoring the Other’s knowledge and reality that can never be fully understood by an outsider. Indeed, the only person who understands the full fact pattern is the Other.
Persuasion is one-sided and makes false assumptions when influencers believe their suggestions are the best options; that the internal relationships, politics, values, history, of the Other are not worthy of consideration; that the persuader ‘should’ be heeded because they’re ‘in authority’; or – worse of all – that the person isn’t capable of figuring out their own route forward.
My neighbor Maria came to my house crying one day. Her doctor had told her she was borderline diabetic and needed to eat differently. He gave her a printed list of foods to eat and foods to avoid and spent time persuading her to stop eating whatever she was eating because his list of foods was essential to her health.
She told me she’d been trying for months, lost some weight, but finally gave up and went back to her normal eating habits and gained back the weight. But she was fearful of dying from diabetes like her mother did. She’d tried to listen to her doc, she didn’t want to be sick, but she just couldn’t do what the doc requested. She asked if I could help, and I told her I’d lead her through to finding her own answers. Here was our exchange.
SDM: I know your doc wants you to change your eating habits for health reasons. I’ll ask you some questions that might lead you to ways to help you figure out how to eat healthier. I’ll start at the very beginning. Who are you?
Maria: I’m a wife, mother and grandmother.
SDM: As a wife, mother and grandmother, what are your beliefs and values?
Maria: I believe I’m responsible for feeding my family in a way that makes them happy.
SDM: What is it you’re doing now that makes them happy?
Maria: My family all live nearby. Every morning I get up early and make 150 tortillas. When they go to work and school in the morning, they stop by and I hand them out to each for their breakfast and lunch. I always make enough for me and Joe to have for breakfast. The doctor says they’re bad for me with all the lard in them and that I must stop eating them. I’ve tried to stop, but they’re a big part of my diet. When the doctor said to stop eating them, I felt he doesn’t want me to love my family.
SDM: So I hear that tortillas are the way you keep your family happy. Is there any other way you can keep your family happy by feeding them without putting your own health at risk?
Maria: Hmmmm… I could make them enchiladas. They don’t have lard, and my family loves them. And my daughter Sonia makes tortillas almost as good as mine.
Then we figured out a terrific plan. Maria invited her entire family for dinner and presented Sonia with her tortilla pan outfitted with a big red bow. She told her family she couldn’t make tortillas any more due to health reasons, but Sonia, the new “Tortilla Tia,” would make them tortillas every day just like Maria did, and she’d make them enchiladas once a week instead. Maria then proceeded to lose 15 pounds, kept the weight off, and is no longer pre-diabetic.
WHAT PERSUASION MISSES
In this case study, the doctor attempted to persuade Maria to do what he thought best with a conventional one-size-fits-all food plan. Yet with the proper questions, an intent to facilitate collaboration and discovery, he could have led her to figure out for herself how to solve the problem her own way, using her own history and values. The diet the doc gave her went against her lifestyle, but he was so intent on doing what he thought ‘best’ he overlooked Maria’s own power to figure out her own solution. Ultimately, she didn’t need persuasion, she needed a facilitated conversation that enabled Maria to discover her own best choices.
Imagine your job is to facilitate folks through their own route to Excellence.
Persuasion tactics seek to meet the needs of the persuader, without accounting for the Other’s discovery through their personal beliefs and lifestyle realities:
- the questions persuaders pose are biased by their own needs and omit/ignore large swathes of potentially applicable, and certainly private, data points that are important to the Other;
- listeners interpret what they hear as per historic matches in their brain circuits (see my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard?) causing a limited and biased understanding, regardless of what influencers are trying to share;
- persuaders work from subjective criteria and don’t take into account the values, beliefs, lifestyles, of the Others, unwittingly causing the Other conflict that the persuader cannot know, and overlooks more creative and workable options that they could discover together.
Regardless of how ‘right’ you or your solution might be, if the Other feels like you’re pushing, or forcing, or manipulating; if you’re asking biased questions based on YOUR need to know so you can use it against them; it’s pretty hard to persuade anyone without there being resentment. Not to mention can you truly believe that YOUR way is the BEST way for another person, and they have no agency to figure out their own route?
Here are a few tips to guide an unbiased conversation that eventually leads the Other to discovering a path forward using their own values.
- Goal: your goal is to help the Other discover their own criteria and actions for change, NOT to get the Other to do what you want!
- Intent: your job is to facilitate another through to their own discovery by directing them down their own trajectory of change, not toward the result the influencer seeks.
- Understanding: you can never, ever, understand what’s going on for Another. Ever. But you can lead them to understand themselves through facilitated discovery.
- Questions: I invented a form of question called a Facilitative Question that walks Others down the trajectory of their own self-discovery with NO bias from you. They are based on the steps people go through when deciding to change and NOT based on your need-to-know, assumptions, or curiosity. Properly formulated, they have no bias but enable bias-free discovery in a way that the Other’s system will not reject.
Instead of trying to persuade, why not try collaborative conversation and facilitated questioning so you both can discover, together, a win/win that serves you both. Instead of it being either/or, why not both/and? And just maybe, use your connection to trust Others to discover their own answers.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.