The Art of Persuasion

How to make people believe you.

The Art of Influence

Image: One man persuades another w/ a wink

Illustrations by Lou Brooks

Babies and psychopaths have one thing in common: They're excellent at getting what they want. Many of us could learn a thing or two from these creatures, tantrums and dirty tactics notwithstanding. That's not to say that, like these ingrates, we should feel entitled to everything we want. Many argue that as a culture, we need urgent lessons in giving, not getting.

But for some, grabbing the brass ring is a constant source of stress and confusion. Others have no trouble going for what they want, but fail to do so effectively. Conflict-avoidant people are terrified to speak up—they miss out on their own objectives, and often forfeit the respect of those around them. Conflict seekers get a thrill from relentlessly asserting their agendas, even to their own detriment. Optimists are more likely to persist in their efforts than are pessimists, who may underestimate their odds of success at the outset.

Were it uniformly advantageous to be aggressive, timid, positive, or negative in pursuit of one's goal, evolution would have selected for only such types. In fact, it takes all styles to get ahead. Whether you're lodging a complaint or trying to change the world, begin by considering the impact of your goal on someone—or some cause—beyond you.

Image: Two men display how to talk things out
Complain to Win—Not to Feel Worse

Kvetch, Bitcher, Debbie Downer: No one likes a chronic complainer, and we've got multiple derogatory terms to prove it. But if you master the art of effective complaining, you'll get what you want while carping less often, says Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem.

Complaining at inappropriate times (when other people are in the spotlight, for example, or when they are focused on issues bigger than yours) can make you look selfish and could further prevent you from being heard. And complaining excessively about one situation can snowball into rumination—anxious and repetitive thoughts that trigger depression.

The first step to effective complaining, then, is deciding if you truly want a concrete result or if you just need emotional validation. The former calls for a complaint; the latter, a vent. Ideally, your interlocutor should know that as well, since trying to "fix" a problem someone else just wants to cry about can cause a meta-argument worse than the original annoyance.

If you decide you want to lodge a complaint, make a plan, says Winch. First, determine exactly what you want to achieve (don't let someone else pick a reparation). Then, figure out who has the ability to provide what you want, and finally, ascertain the best way to get that person to give it to you. Though it's all very logical, in the heat of frustration people usually lash out at the first body in sight. Winch recommends moving from the easiest complaint to the hardest when working on problem-solving skills.

When people receive a grievance, they naturally grow defensive. They might even throw the issue back at you, further dialing up your emotions. That's why you need to be extra nice, against your instincts. "This is the existential dilemma of the complaint," Winch says. "Do you want to be right, or do you want to get a good result?"

One way to avert the downward spiral of defensiveness is to make what Winch calls a "complaint sandwich." The top slice of bread—the first thing you should write in a letter or say to a person—is the "ear-opener," which prevents the target of your complaint from feeling attacked. The "meat" of the sandwich is the specific complaint or request for redress, and the bottom slice is the "digestive," or a positive, grateful statement reinforcing the idea that you are a reasonable person worthy of help.

After suffering through months of loud construction from a building site near his apartment, Winch delivered a complaint sandwich to his landlord. He started off by saying how much he loves the building and appreciates the great job the management company does. Then he asked for a decrease in his rent, in order to make up for the blow to his productivity as a writer, caused by the incessant noise. Finally, he added that he understood that the noise was in no way the landlord's fault, but thought he would be concerned about its effect on his tenants. The result? A rent reduction for six months.

Figure Out What Others Want

"I once attended a New Year's Eve party," says Kevin Dutton, Ph.D., the author of Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds, "and the seven-year-old son of the hostess wanted to stay up late. His mother said, 'You know what happens when you don't go to bed on time. You wake up late and cranky and irritable.' The boy replied, 'Well, you don't want me running around early when you're lying in bed with a headache, do you?' He framed his request in terms of her desires, and was allowed to join the midnight reverie."

After analyzing dozens of successful instances of persuasion, Dutton came up with several key commandments, one of them being this wise child's tactic of leading with the other person's perceived self-interest. Let's say you're trying to entice someone to fund your new restaurant. Of course, you have to have a viable business plan. But you should also think hard about why the potential investor would be interested—beyond the obvious chance to make money. Is he a foodie who is frustrated with the quality of the cuisine in your town? Then let him know that by supporting your restaurant, he will be a gourmet superhero, bringing top-notch ingredients and flavors to his fellow citizens. Is he a social maven who loves to entertain? Mention that your restaurant will be his place to hold court and impress his friends. Is he an aesthete? Tell him investors get major input on decor and remodeling plans. Appeal to his greater goals and passions in life, and you'll make him feel like he's part of an exciting cause, not just a human ATM.

Divining someone else's motivations requires empathy. Consider the highly charismatic individual, or even those master persuaders—psychopaths. Contrary to popular belief, psychopaths possess impressive powers of empathy: "They can read and gauge others' feelings very well, but they do it dispassionately." Dutton calls this "cold" empathy. The takeaway for everyone: Be strategic when considering another person's perspective. That makes you smart, not ruthless.

Like empathy, confidence cuts both ways. "A lot of times, we don't want to make demands, because we're embarrassed," says Dutton. "The psychopath isn't held back by these insecurities and it serves him in getting what he wants." One way to build and project confidence is to not be attached to the outcome of a request. That way you'll be more assured when making it.

Image: Poster asking
Figure Out What Others Need

If you want a loved one to drop destructive or unproductive habits, it's usually in part for your own sake. But commanding him to transform for you (even if it's solely so that you won't have to worry and fret about him) violates the law of psychological reactance: No one likes to be told what to do. "If you genuinely say to someone, 'You don't have to do that, it's your choice,' their resistance melts away and they start thinking about their own thought processes, instead of yours," says Michael Pantalon, Ph.D., author of Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything—Fast.

Pantalon champions motivational interviewing, a structured way of talking to people that gets them thinking about the reasons they might want to change. Coming up with creative ways in which your agenda meshes with another's is effective in many realms of persuasion. But when it comes to entrenched addiction and self-sabotaging behavior, the motivation really does have to come from those in its grip—and not from your spin on the situation—in order to stick.

Say you've been nagging your sister to stop drinking for a long time. You might acknowledge that you've pressured her a lot in the past, and that you're not going to do that anymore, because it is up to her if she wants to keep drinking. Then at a later point, calmly ask your sister why she might want to stop. She'll likely share some compelling reasons. And then, ask her how ready she is to change and what she imagines the positive outcomes would be. Finally, ask what the next step would be if she were to change. "The reasons she gives you might be the same ones you've been giving her all along," Pantalon says. "But coming out of her mouth, they're much more powerful."

Motivational interviewing resolves lighter matters, too. A mom who is upset because her teenage son never wipes down the sink after cleaning up from his ball games can say, "Look, I've been getting on you for months and it hasn't worked. You're 16 and it's up to you whether or not you do this." At this point, Pantalon warns, the kid will look at his mother like she's crazy. Then the mother can continue, "I'd like for you to wipe down the sink. But you don't have to. But let me ask you, what would be in it for you if you did?" He might say "It would get you off my back!" and he might also admit that he doesn't like the area to be dirty. Crucially, the mom should at this point walk away without making any conclusive statements. "When conversations are left undone, they are remembered better," says Pantalon. "If you leave things up in the air, it makes people feel uneasy." And it might just make the teen uneasy enough to clean up next time, merely to avoid another bizarre conversation with Mom.

You can even use this technique on yourself. If you want to lose weight for a reunion in a few months, ask yourself why and keep writing until you come up with a reason that surprises you or perhaps seems deeper than the obvious answer: "I want to look good." You might find that you want to avoid the nightly guilt you experience after eating cookies, for example, even more than you want to fit into a particular dress. Whatever your personal motivation is, pinpointing it will give you the energy to make the next step—because you want to, not because someone told you to.

Tap a Vision that Surpasses Anyone's Wants and Needs

Steve Jobs, (former) CEO and cofounder of Apple and Pixar, has been accused of firing people in elevators, calling top designers and programmers idiots, and reaming out salespeople in front of their colleagues. As biographer Leander Kahney states in Inside Steve's Brain, "For Jobs, acknowledging you have an IQ higher than 100 is a glowing endorsement." Kahney adds that "Jobs is a control freak extraordinaire. He's also a perfectionist, an elitist, and a taskmaster to employees. By most accounts, Jobs is borderline loony." Yet as the world knows, the gadget guru is obviously doing something right—Jobs pulled Apple from the brink of bankruptcy and has made the company bigger and more profitable than it's ever been.

Jobs reached his long-term goal of successfully turning Apple around. Since it's in his employees' self-interest to work for a thriving firm, that same principle of persuading individuals for their own sake applies to the group. But to change the structure and tone of a complex organization, you must inevitably upset others along the way.

Jobs puts his salient personality traits—perfectionism and an obsessive nature—in service of his goal: bringing the most innovative, easy-to-use tech products to the masses. He also uses his natural political intelligence to judge people quickly and get the most out of them. Since Jobs is comfortable turning on the charm when he's negotiating or making presentations, but remains cold and aloof at other times, employees are motivated to please him as they would a powerful-yet-distant father figure.

Some of these qualities and tactics seem abominable, and yet, Jobs and other "great intimidators" get away with them for two primary reasons, says Roderick Kramer, Ph.D., William B. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University, who studied unsavory leaders who nonetheless inspire loyalty and respect in others. The first reason is that they have talent and brains that far outweigh their impatience and temper. Martha Stewart may be difficult, for example, "but she is really good at what she does. So even if it's a little painful to work for her, you feel like you are learning from a master," Kramer says.

Image: Poster that reads

The second reason such abrasive leaders are able to succeed, Kramer found, is that they have genuine passion and a compelling vision that transcend making a buck.

For his part, Jobs has claimed he wants to "put a ding in the universe." Kahney writes that "at every turn of his career, Steve Jobs has inspired employees, lured software developers, and snagged customers by invoking a higher calling. Jobs knows programmers don't work to make easy-to-use software; they're striving to change the world." The secret, Kahney argues, is that "it's OK to be an asshole, as long as you're passionate about it." Not everyone agrees that outsize talent excuses outsize tantrums. "You can perform at all costs," says Ronald Riggio, Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College. "But what are you going to be left with? If you run people ragged and achieve at their expense, you're going to lose talented people." The ideal influencer, Riggio says, is a "transformational leader" who brings out the best in underlings by developing their strengths, holding them to high standards, and being totally transparent about goals and strategies.

Neither the gentle soul nor the great intimidator has a lock on persuasion. So if you find your techniques up against an impenetrable wall, take comfort in an Old World curse: May you get what you want.

6 Persuasive Buzzwords

Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the Regents' Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, identifies six basic tendencies that are both effective and exploitable, depending on which side of the equation you inhabit. Use these classic salesperson's principles judiciously, and beware those who might use them on you:

  • Reciprocation: Consider the in-store wine tasting, or the free scone at the coffee shop. We think we're coming out on top, but the expectation to give back is strong within us, and leads us to buy something.

  • Consistency: We like to see ourselves as consistent souls with unwavering beliefs. So if you ask me to publicly declare my devotion to animal rights, for example, I'm more likely to donate money to PETA later.

  • Social Validation: Rugged individualist fantasies aside, we are more likely to do something if we see that many other people like us have also done it.

  • Liking: If you like someone, you are more likely to say "yes" to her request. If she is pretty, you're even more likely. And if she compliments you, well, that works, too.

  • Authority: Four out of five dentists recommend using the reassuring gloss of authority to sell this toothpaste.

  • Scarcity: Anyone who has grabbed a plain, overpriced t-shirt from another's hands at a "one-day-only" sale understands how persuasive limited-time and limited-quantity offers are.

The Art of Persuasion