All people from time to time find themselves in a situation in which they want someone to see it their way. The issue could be a minor one like persuading a child to make her bed or, at work, arranging to get more help on a difficult project. It could be an issue of major import like persuading a spouse to change behaviors that could otherwise lead to marriage problems.
Is being persuasive in these situations about sweet-talking? About being a great debater? Turns out, the answer to both of these questions is no.
Your most vital organ for persuasiveness is your ears. Listening more fully to the underlying concerns of the person whom you want to persuade will most dramatically increase the odds your message will get heard. Listening better is more likely to get you what you want than trying to be persuasive with your tongue alone.
Here’s five reasons why.
1. Persuasion needs a relaxed, open recipient. LIstening invites the person you want to persuade to relax and listen more openly.
Everyone wants to feel that their viewpoints have merit. Let’s take the case of Jill and her boss Peter in the business discussion that could have been taking place in the photo above. Once Jill feels that Peter has genuinely heard her concerns about a business idea he has just proposed, she can relax.
If in addition to hearing Jill’s words Peter verbalizes what he agrees with about what his employee has explained to him, Jill is likely to feel all the more reassured that her boss is taking her message seriously. Feeling that her point has become part of Peter's data base, Jill is likely to feel all the more comfortable about opening her ears in turn to Peter’s differing perspective.
Why does listening help participants in a difficult discussion to relax? Information is power. When Jill gives Peter information and he treats that information as valuable, Jill herself feels more powerful. The animal nature of humans makes us all always subconsciously aware of hierarchy. When Peter treats information that Jill has given him as worth listening to, he is promoting her to a safe place on their animal hierarchy. Safety breeds relaxation. Relaxation opens folks up to taking in new data.
Here’s an example in a conversation between neighbors.
Dan: You really should transfer your kids to the new private school that will be opening soon in the neighborhood.
Paula: No way! I’m loyal to Edgerly where they go now.
Dan: Yes, I can see your loyalty in all the volunteer work you’ve done for Edgerly. I think it’s great that you are so loyal. I admire loyalty.
In what ways did Jan listen well? She picked up on the key concern that Paula was expressing, loyalty, expanded on the idea of loyalty, and even expressed her appreciation for that attribute. Hearing that her viewpoint had been received, Paula then became curious in tur to hear Jan's perspective.
2. Relatonships tend to proceed with mirroring responses.
Hearing that her viewpoint had been fully received, Paula is likely to become curious in turn to hear Dan's perspective.
Paula: Then how come you think it might be a good idea to send our kids to the new school?
Listening with genuine interest sets up for the other person to listen similarly. When Jan listens to Paula, Paula then responds by being willing to listen to Dan. Like begets like. Listening begets a mirrored behavior of listening in return.
Dan: The new school will have special individualized science, math and music programs where kids can learn at their own pace, going as fast as their young brains will take them.
Paula: Really? That’s new information for me.
3. Persuasive arguments depend on knowing what matters to the other person.
Dan: In addition to feeling loyal to Edgerly where the kids are now, what do you like about the school? Why else are you wanting to keep the kids there?
Paula: I like that it’s a small school where the kids have close friends that they’ve known for years. I also like that the teachers are all quite positive.
Dan: Yes, I agree that small makes for a close-knit sense of community. It’s very special that the kids there, including my own kids, all have known each other since kindergarten. And I agree too that we have been extraordinarily fortunate that Edgerly has such a strong and positive teaching staff.
Dan now knows that in order to persuade Paula to send her children to the new school along with his kids, he will need to speak to the issues of loyalty, school size, communal closeness, continuity of friendships, and quality of the teaching staff.
4. People tend to be more open to persuasion by someone they like than by someone they don’t like.
Disagreeing makes you appear disagreeable. No one likes people who tell them that they are wrong. Criticism and blaming likewise make the speaker less attractive.
Insistence, excessive emotional intensity, and stridency are similarly off-putting.
Expressing agreement, by contrast makes you more likable. The more you use your ears and then express appreciation and agreement for at least the other person's concerns if not their solution ideas, the more your listener will like you, and in turn become more likely to like what you have to say. Lots of liking makes fertile ground for later agreement.
In 1957 a psychologist named Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance for the discomfort people feel when likes and dislikes are combined. People like agreement. They feel uncomfortable when facts seem contrary. If I don’t like you it’s harder for me to like what you are trying to persuade me about. If I do like you, I am more prone to try to listen favorably to what you tell me.
5. Everyone wants to be right, including the person you are trying to persuade.
Each time you respond by listening to and agreeing with what the person you are trying to persuade says, your validation enables them to feel “Ahah!, I’m right!” That’s good. Your validation keeps them wanting to continue the conversation long enough for you to show them that your perspective is right as well…and maybe even more right! Using your ears first puts you on the pathway that leads to potential win-win solutions.
Jan: Well I certainly do agree with you that loyalty, community closeness, continuity of close friendships and great teachers all make for positive reasons to stick with the kids’ current school. We have been so fortunate that our kids, yours and ours, have received these blessings. And at the same time…
Note the important linkage phrase and at the same time. A but at this point would have negated all the prior validating statements, instantly erasing the rapport you've been building.
Jan: And at the same time I’m excited about the new school’s science and math programs for my son Jonathan. He’s such a gung ho kid when we do science and math projects at home, and I’m afraid those are weak links in the Edgerly curriculum. And our little Teresa sings already like an angel. The idea that she could get a music education at the new school to further her talents is very appealing to us.
The words and at the same time signify addition. They reassure both parties that whatever further information Jan is about to add will not negate or dismiss the prior agreed-upon data points. Launching into her differing perspective with but by contrast would have subtracted out the prior data, eliminating the gains you’ve made with your prior listening and expressions of agreement.
6. Being persuasive is about enabling the other person to change their mind.
Once someone has said their reasons why they feel one way, they become more free to take in additional information that might lead to them seeing it differently.
I myself recall a situation in which someone wanted me to join our neighborhood health club. “How come you haven’t joined?” she asked, and I told her my reasons. A few days later she asked again, “What other thoughts have you had about how come you haven’t joined the health club?” By the third time she asked me, my old reasons no longer made sense to be. I joined.
Paula: Hmm…If your kids will be transferring, maybe we should look at the new school for our kids also. Your kids have always been my Joe and Janice’s best friends…. How big will the new school be? And do you know if any of their other friends will be transferring?
In sum, what’s the most vital organ for being persuasive? … It’s ears.
Ask good how and what questions about the concerns of someone you want to persuade of a belief or an action. How do you feel about ....? What's your thoughts about ....? Then use your ears. Listen attentively to their answers and digest aloud what about their answer makes sense to you as well.
While your tongue later can close the deal, first your ears need to do their work.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Denver who specializes in helping couples build the skills for a strong and loving partnership, is author of the book, workbook and online program called Power of Two.