When You Want to Persuade Someone

An alert, experimental mindset is key.

Posted Aug 09, 2016

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

If a sailor hopes to make it to Hawaii, s/he must stay alert to the need to adjust a sail, change course, etc.

Similarly, in our conversations, we must stay alert to the need to change tactics.

Let's take the situation in which an employee feels overworked and micromanaged.

A first decision is how much small talk to make before getting to The Issue. The wise person tries a brief foray into small talk and then observes the response's words, tone, and body language. For example, if you ask, "Hi Mary, how are you?"  Almost always, the response is "Fine." But is the tone obligatory? Enthusiastic? Desultory? An obligatory "fine" may signal a desire to get down to business. An enthusiastic or desultory response suggests it's worth a comment that would lead the person to say more.

For example, in response to an enthusiastic "I'm fine," you might say, "I'm glad. What's up?" Let's say the answer is brief and door-closing, for example, "Oh, nothing. Everything's fine, that's all."  That's a cue to move to talking business. If her answer is expansive, ask a follow-up question or say something about how you're doing. Note that the key to all this is staying focused, paying attention, being in the moment, and not jumping ahead.

Sometimes, the small talk can last just seconds, other times through a meal. Of course, you have to decide whether you want to wait that long before launching into The Issue, but there's often a price to be paid for rushing in.

At some point though, it's time to turn to The Issue.

Your next decision is whether to start mild or be confrontational. Usually, it's wise to hold the nuclear option as a last resort, but occasionally that's the only way to break the concrete wall of resistance. That's why communication is an art, not a science. It's a matter of feel.

Let's say you decided to start mild, offering to take blame for the problem. For example, "Mary, I'm actually a little nervous even bringing this up and it may be all my fault but I thought I'd raise the issue with you. I'm feeling overworked and the stress is magnified because I feel you're watching my every move. Am I being too inefficient and should I be able to do all that work? And is my work so bad that I need such close supervision?"

After making your comment, pay attention to the person's response: words, tone, body language. If they admit fault, great, but that's rare—It seems that today, people are more likely to refuse to take responsibility for their failings.

But the person's defensiveness could be justified. Does his/her answer suggest the problem resides within you? Or is their defensiveness irrational?. If the wise person within you believes the person is right, you must man/woman-up by saying something like, "You raise a good point. I'll work on it." To persist in the face of your boss's solid response risks losing your job.

But if the wise person within you believes the person's defensiveness isn't justified, unless the boss responded with fury, you might take another bite at the apple, for example, "I'm working 10 hours a day and trying to be as efficient as possible. Can you tell me where I could be more efficient or what tasks I might back-burner or even not do?"

Again, as the person responds, try to consciously decide whether to stay mild, add new information, ask a question, or escalate the emotion and be direct, even blunt. Usually the risk-reward ratio of direct confrontation is poor, but sometimes it's the wisest choice, for example, if you feel there's a chance s/he'll respond better to that, if only later. You will have blasted through the hard-pan so you could plant a seed. 

In that boss/supervisee example, of course, your decision whether to risk direct confrontation depends also on how much you want to keep your job. If you're a soft-skilled average performer who desperately needs the paycheck, you'll be more cautious. If you have uncommonly held, marketable skills and could afford to take a while to find a better job, you can be bolder.

The takeaway

Most people just talk and half-listen. That's dangerous in any conversation and potentially catastrophic in a conversation with your boss. Be like the sailor headed for Hawaii: Stay alert to the need to adjust a sail or change course and you've boosted your chances of reaching paradise...or at least getting your way.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.