The Art of Approaching Persuasion

Highly effective persuasion entails communicating the way others do, not expecting them to adjust to your style.

Have you noticed that people are most effective influencing others who are like themselves? No surprise. Of course it's easier to identify with those with similar interests, goals, and values. But "easy" doesn't necessarily mean "more effective"; it's the leadership analog of "preaching to the choir." And, the flip side, being frustrated at not being able to really reach others who see things differently -- especially if those others are Executives.

To heighten their influence, leaders have to be able to reach a wide range of people, even (especially!) those with vastly different styles and objectives. In fact, Anil Mathur, CEO of Alaska Tanker Company, which displays global-level safety performance and culture, plainly states that the personal style of an advanced leader is "irrelevant." In other words, breadth of influence comes from being able to adapt to what's needed, not expecting others to adapt to you. This doesn't imply saying or doing anything to elicit approval; rather, it means being versatile, building communication bridges that start from others' viewpoints. Your intent matters less than their perception filter; what you're trying to say pales compared to what they think they hear.

How to become more persuasive? Beginning by weaving foresight, planning, and strategy, leaders can make it more likely Executives will adjust their mindset and actions. Management guru Peter Drucker contended the strongest leaders start by formulating the right questions, rather than jumping in headfirst to come up with the "right solutions." With this in mind, you can build better Persuasion Power by considering, then thinking through the following eight questions.

How can you determine their answers? Listen to what someone you wish to persuade says, reads, writes about -- and consider (carefully!) interviewing others close to them. Pay extra attention to words and themes they repeat.

1. What do they fear? Taboos? The 10 things you might say to someone are less important than the one they actually hear. And the one that stands out is anything that reflects their deepest underlying concerns. Bear in mind, if you can help a person reduce his or her fears (including those they don't admit aloud), you've made a strong ally.

In working with organizations, I've learned always to ask whether there are any "taboo words." This reflects my 99/1 rule: If you tell someone 99 things he/she likes and one he/she ardently rejects, which do you think he/she is likely to remember? I've often been surprised to hear terms that I thought of as positive being no-no phrases that set people off or spur shutdown. Usually these words became poisoned from a negative past association. For example, one company didn't want to use "team" in anything because it was associated with a previous resource-draining "teambuilding" intervention that backfired on many levels. Another organization eschews the term "program" because they associate this with previous flavor-of-the-month interventions that turned off key executives.

2. What do they really want? Go beyond "return on investment," "reduced claims," and other typical objectives. I'm not saying they're unimportant, but these are often the tips of a manager's underlying hope list. For some, this may mean looking better than an internal competitor, enhancing their credibility with higher-ups, or rebuilding faltering trust within the organization, etc.

3. How do they communicate? Do they speak literally and directly or inferentially (suggest vs. tell? talk "between the lines" vs. specify?)? Do they favor "just the facts" communications, or do they tend toward relating anecdotes that illustrate their points? Highly effective persuasion entails communicating the way others do, not expecting them to adjust to your style.

4. What are their personal interests and motivations? Look at their favorite hobbies, pictures they place in their personal area (desk, office, etc.), what they speak about, what magazines they read. Use analogies from their favorite sports. Show how your recommendations tie into what they’re already strongly interested.

5. What could get in the way of their taking action? What might block their actually supporting your proposed change? Or hamper them from upping their visible leadership? How can I involve them as early as possible without overwhelming or pressuring them?

6. How can I make change easier for them? Generally, the less you ask of someone and the easier you make it to do something different, the more likely she'll do so. For example, you'll typically have more success suggesting an executive drop into safety training for 10 minutes than expecting her to attend an ongoing series of two-hour sessions.

7. What small steps would reassure them/build their confidence? Many people tend to gravitate toward doing what they feel comfortable with -- and avoid those where they feel over their head. So prepare a brief "Executive Summary" before they visit a conference, introduce a presenter, etc. Offer to answer any question they might have to increase their effectiveness (briefly, of course).

8. How can I anchor persuasion improvements? Persuading once is not enough. On subsequent contacts: a) thank them, b) provide feedback on different kinds of successful responses to their leadership, c) suggest easy next steps to make adjustments or sustain positive changes and momentum, and d) ask them how changes are working out. This continued contact can simultaneously further your relationship, build professional credibility, enhance your aura of reliability –- and provide information on how to better persuade in the future.

Of course, even the best plan only gets you so far. Will Rogers said, "Planning get you into things; hard work gets you out of them." Even if you're able to determine what others want, fear, and spark to, you now have to communicate sincerely, clearly, and effectively -– and help solve problems.

To heighten their safety and effectiveness, rock climbers scout and plan their "approach" before a climb. Similarly, by better understanding and customizing your approach to others, you can significantly elevate your ability to persuade.

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