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How to Get Your Way

New research dispels three common myths that prevent us from moving others.

Whether you know it or not, you will sell something today.

You probably aren’t combing the streets trying to hock toilet brushes to perfect strangers. But according to Daniel Pink, author of To Sell is Human, today “we are all in sales.” Whether you’re trying to sell your skills to get that next promotion; your neighbors on funding for a new park; your kids on the merits of a new bedtime routine; or your romantic virtues to a possible suitor; you will almost certainly try to sell something today.

Social scientists are discovering that the average human—you and me—are far more adept at selling than most of us think. To unlock our persuasive potential, we have to dispel three longstanding myths.

Myth #1: “Saying More Sells More”

A new study by Adam Grant, at the University of Pennsylvania has found that extraversion—long thought to be the secret weapon for successful salespeople—can be as harmful as it is helpful. Grant studied the effectiveness of 340 telemarketers to measure the impact of extroversion. What he found is that the fast-talkers and light-listeners were hardly better at sales than extremely introverted wallflowers. The top performers were actually “ambiverts”—those people who are smack dab in the middle of the introversion/extroversion bell curve. “Because they naturally engage in a flexible pattern of talking and listening,” Grant explains, ambiverts come across as “more conversational and authentic.” They express appropriate levels of excitement without being in-your-face pushy or in-your-space creepy.

Daniel Pink believes there is also a lesson here about clarity. In our information-overloaded world, Pink told me, people often muddy up an otherwise persuasive message by “trying to do too many things.” Instead of trying to tell the other person every possible reason why you deserve that job, or why that park will be wonderful, Pink suggests thinking of the one word or concept you would most like to convey, and driving it home. For instance, Google’s one word is “search.” Pink says his one word is “Rethink.” Mine is “decide.” What’s yours?

Myth #2: “Empathy is the Secret Weapon”

This is a dangerous half-truth. It sounds good, but empathy by itself is not strategic enough to be effective. You must show some heart, but you can’t lose your head. One antidote to hyper-empathy is what Pink calls “strategic mimicry,” which is subtle form of copy-catting their body language. They lean in, you lean in. They fiddle with their wedding band, you fiddle with your ring finger, and so on.

Interestingly, we can all do this naturally without months or even hours of training. In one study, Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University, sent one group of job candidates a message just five minutes before they met with recruiters to negotiate their compensation package. In the short message, Galinsky’s team suggested that mimicking the other person's body language is usually beneficial to negotiations. With just five minutes notice and no time at all to practice, this group of candidates more effectively struck win-win deals that were better for both parties than those who didn't receive the advice to mimick. As Galinsky described it, the mimickers not only increased the overall size of the pie, they also took a bigger piece of it.

Mimicking creates a subconscious sense of trust and mutual connection between the influencer and the influencee. It makes the negotiators feel like they are literally in sync with each other. So instead of defending their respective turfs, both buyer and seller are legitimately looking for a win-win solution.

That said, mimicry for harmony’s sake is not strategic. “What makes it strategic,” Pink argues, is the fact that you are “being conscious that another person's posture, gestures, and word choice are an important channel of information.” That channel of information should be useful for persuading the other person, and not just empathizing with them. To put it another way, empathy is emotional. Strategic mimicry is cognitive.

Myth #3: “Tony Robbins Beats Bob the Builder”

In general, Chipper Charlie is more persuasive than Debbie Downer. The million-dollar question is, how do we actively slip into a positive mindset before presenting our case? Before showing up for the big date? Before corralling the kids for the bedtime battle?

Pink points to Bob the Builder … and a new line of research spearheaded by Dolores Albarracin at Penn’s Annenberg School of Communication. Bob is my sons' favorite Claymation contractor on PBS who rallies the talking tractors in his construction crew not by declaring “We can fix it!” but by asking the question: “Can we fix it?” Albarracin calls the latter method “interrogative self-talk” because you are interrogating yourself rather than making statements. What she has found is that posing a question—“Will I convince this guy/gal to like me?” or “Can I get the kids to bed ontime?”— orders up a different and more effective set of mental resources than declarative statements like “I will…” or “I can…” By asking ourselves the question, our brain immediately begins searching for answers and recalling past incidents in which we did in fact attract a mate; get the kids to bed; or persuade our boss.

Now, the only question you have to ask yourself is can you persuade others?

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