How do you sell an unsellable idea? What legitimate tricks and secrets of persuasion psychology can you use? Eager persuaders often fall into the trap of some common myths of persuasion, rather than base their strategy on the scientifically proven principles of persuasion.
Persuasion is an important part of leadership and a difficult skill to conquer. In this two part series, we challenge popular misconceptions and discuss ways in which you can master the art of persuasion.
How would you persuade a fellow classmate to consume six raw eggs in front of the whole class? This was one of the challenges in my HEC Paris MBA course on Organisational Behaviour. One student (the persuader) had to convince another student (the persuadee) to accept and complete this challenge with a time limit of one hour. The persuader had any means at his disposal (within the bounds of the French law), including the support of the rest of the class. The persuadee was clearly disgusted with the idea of eating raw eggs, so which strategies worked successfully, and which ones failed?
- Payment: The persuader offered a cash reward financed by the rest of the class (1 euro x 50 students = 50 euros, or 100 euros or 200 euros…),
Result: This approach had little success before the budget of the class was exhausted.
- Bargaining: “I can do your homework” or “clean your room” etc.
- Collaboration: “I’ll eat one if you eat one”
- Begging: “Please, please, just eat them?”
Result: None of these personally targeted strategies could change the persuadee’s mind
- Seduction: In cases where the persuader was a girl, or asked a girl to help him, she flirted with the persuadee “I can give you a hug or a kiss…”
Result: This strategy had some mixed success, but didn’t always work, particularly when the persuadee revealed “Sorry you’re wasting your time with me because I have a girlfriend”… or “Sorry I’m actually gay…”
- Social amputation: “If you eat the eggs, you’re a hero! If you don’t, you’re a loser!”
Result: This process pinned the blame on the persuadee, who became emotionally withdrawn and froze the negotiation process
Most of these failed strategies relied on using social power in the form of (1) Coercion or (2) Reward with a carrot-or-stick type approach. These cover only 2 of the 5 different sources of power identified by French and Raven (1959), with the remaining forms being (3) Legitimate, (4) Expert and (5) Referent. Perhaps a more creative or adventurous persuader could try something different for better luck?
- Esprit de corps (team spirit): In this case, the persuader was a former commando in the army, who had previously trained his comrades to jump out of helicopters into enemy cross-fire. He knew exactly what to do.
Result: He gathered the whole class in a circle and pumped up the mood with loud motivational music to get everyone clapping and cheering in a frenzy. When he brought the persuadee into the classroom, he handed him the glass of raw eggs and practically poured it down his throat before he had any serious chance of objection. The persuadee admitted that he didn’t even know what was going on, except that he didn’t want to kill the party.
- Reciprocity: “What would it take for you to eat the raw eggs?” asked the persuader.
“Only if you do something absolutely crazy like run across campus in your underwear” responded the persuadee.
“OK – agreed! Now eat those eggs!”
Result: Surprisingly, this demonstrated that reaching a deal is always possible – it just needed to be in a currency that was valued by the counterparty, in this case, an equally crazy dare
As our little classroom experiment demonstrated, although different individuals can respond to different influences in different ways, there are still some universal foolproof strategies that seem to work consistently. Powerful forces of persuasion constantly shape our personal decisions in subconscious ways such as peer pressure, social conformity and reciprocation of favours.
Myths of persuasion
“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it” – US President Dwight Eisenhower
Conger (1998) argues that “the language of leadership is misunderstood and underutilised as most business leaders traditionally see persuasion as a relatively straightforward process: First, you strongly state your position. Second, you outline the supporting arguments, followed by a highly assertive, data-based exposition. Finally, you enter the deal-making stage and work toward a ‘close’.”
After conducting a post-mortem of failed persuasion strategies of business executives over 12 years, he debunked the four common myths of persuasion, paraphrased as follows:
- They attempt to make their case with an up-front hard-sell (“John Wayne approach”)
The persuader begins by strongly stating their position, then elaborates with a series of perfectly rational arguments delivered with the enthusiasm and persistence of an evangelist.
However, setting out a strong position at the start of a persuasion effort gives potential opponents something to grab onto and fight against.
- They resist compromise (“my way or the highway”)
Managers tend to see compromise as surrender or defeat that should be avoided at all costs.
Without compromise, ineffective persuaders treat persuasion as a one-way street, which isolates potential supporters, business partners and customers.
- They believe that the secret of persuasion lies in presenting great arguments (“the master orator”)
Great arguments will sway even the most stubborn audience and must be used to the greatest extent possible.
Great arguments are only one-half of great communication – the other half is great listening and understanding.
- They assume persuasion is a one-shot effort (“now or never”)
Persuaders believe they only have one chance to go all-in and change everything at once.
Practice makes perfect and persuasion is a continual process, rather than a single event. Frequently, persuasion is a cycle of listening, developing a shared solution, testing it and repeating.
As times have changed, the tools of persuasion, negotiation and motivation are no longer exercised with the blunt instrument of “hard power”. Instead, those who can master the subtle nuances of the fine art of “soft power” will be much more effective in influencing others. In the next article “Art of Persuasion”, we present an alternative strategy of persuasion that has been proven to be much more effective for business leaders to win buy-in from stakeholders and catalyse change in their organisations.
Cialdini, Robert (1984) “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” HarperCollins
Conger, Jay (1998) “The Necessary Art of Persuasion” Harvard Business Review
(This is the primary reference with most concepts summarised from this article)
French, John & Raven, Bertram (1959), “The Bases of Social Power” Studies in Social Power
Heinrichs, Jay (2007) “Thank You For Arguing” Three Rivers Press
Nye, Joseph (2012) “China’s Soft Power Deficit” Wall Street Journal
Thompson, Jeff & McGowan, Hugh (2014) “Talk To Me: What It Takes To Be An NYPD Hostage Negotiator”
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