Four steps in persuasive communication at work
01 Jun, 2020
Persuasion, influence, motivation
This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
Most business people see persuasion as a straightforward process. They think it comprises:
- a strong statement of your position
- an outline of the supporting arguments, followed by a highly assertive, data-based explanation
- entering into discussion with others and obtaining their ready agreement
In other words, you use logic, persistence and personal enthusiasm to get others to buy a good idea. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong! This doesn’t work.
Effective workplace persuasion was studied closely by Professor Jay Conger, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Southern California. Over a 12-year period he reviewed the characteristics of successful business leaders and change agents, and studied the academic literature on persuasion and rhetoric. Conger summarized his research in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “The Necessary Art of Persuasion.” Although more than 20 years have gone by since then, his conclusions are timeless.
Conger’s interest focused on persuasion as a process rather than as a single event, ie one presentation. He formed definite conclusions about the necessary qualities of effective persuasion:
“Effective persuasion becomes a negotiating and learning process through which a persuader leads colleagues to a problem’s shared solution.” It is a difficult and time-consuming process.
Four necessary steps in effective persuasion
Conger’s research indicated that effective persuasion comprises four distinct and necessary steps:
- Establish your credibility
In the workplace, credibility comes from expertise and relationships. People are considered to have high levels of expertise if they have a history of sound judgment or have proven themselves knowledgeable and well informed about their proposals. They have demonstrated over time that they can be trusted to listen and to work in the best interests of others.
- Frame your goals in a way that identifies common ground with those you intend to persuade.
It is a process of identifying shared benefits in which it is critical to identify your objective’s tangible benefits to the people you are trying to persuade. If no shared advantages are readily apparent, it is better to adjust your position until you find a shared advantag. The best persuaders closely study the issues that matter to their colleagues. They use conversations, meetings and other forms of dialogue to collect essential information. They are good at listening. They test their ideas with trusted contacts and question the people they will later be persuading. Often this process causes them to alter or compromise their own plans before they even start persuading. It is through this thoughtful, inquisitive approach they develop frames that appeal to their audience.
- Reinforce your positions using vivid language and compelling evidence.
Persuasive people supplement data with examples, stories, metaphors and analogies to make their positions come alive. Vivid word pictures lend a compelling and tangible quality to the persuader’s point of view.
- Connect emotionally with your audience.
Although we like to think decision-makers use reason to make their decisions, we will always find emotions at play if we scratch below the surface. Good persuaders are aware of the primacy of emotions and are responsive to them in two important ways. Firstly, they show their own emotional commitment to the position they are advocating (without overdoing it, which would be counter-productive). Secondly, they have a strong and accurate sense of their audience’s emotional state, and they adjust their tone and the intensity of their arguments accordingly.
Avoid the four big errors of persuasion
From his painstaking research, Conger concluded that the big four mistakes in major persuasion projects are:
- Attempting to make your case with an up-front hard sell.
Setting out a strong position at the outset actually gives potential opponents something to grab on to and to fight against. It’s far better not to give opponents a clear target at the start.
- Resisting compromise.
Too many people see compromise as surrender, but compromise is essential to constructive persuasion. Before people buy into a proposal they want to see that the persuader is flexible enough to respond to their concerns. Compromises can often lead to better, more sustainable, shared solutions.
- Thinking the secret of persuasion lies in presenting great arguments.
Great arguments matter, but they are only one component. Other factors matter just as much, such as the persuader’s credibility and their ability to create a mutually beneficial position for themselves and their audience (win:win), to connect on the right emotional level and to communicate through vivid language that makes arguments come alive.
- Assuming persuasion is a one-time effort.
Persuasion is a process, not an event. Shared solutions are rarely reached on the first try.
More often than not, persuasion involves listening to people, testing a position, developing a new position that reflects input from the group, more testing incorporating compromises, and then trying again. If this sounds like a slow and difficult process, that’s because it is. But the results are worth the effort.