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Business Thought

Jay A. Conger

If there ever was a time for businesspeople to learn the fine art of persuasion, it is now. Gone are the command-and-control days of executives managing by decree. Today businesses are run largely by cross-functional teams of peers and populated by baby boomers and their Generation X offspring, who show little tolerance for unquestioned authority.
Electronic communication and globalization have further eroded the traditional hierarchy, as ideas and people flow more freely than ever around organizations and as decisions get made closer to the markets. These fundamental changes, more than a decade in the making but now firmly part of the economic landscape, essentially come down to this: work today gets done in an environment where people don’t just ask What should I do? but Why should I do it?
To answer this why question effectively is to persuade.
Yet many businesspeople misunderstand persuasion, and more still underutilize it. The reason?



Persuasion is widely perceived as a skill reserved for selling products and closing deals. It is also commonly seen as just another form of manipulation—devious and to be avoided.

Certainly, persuasion can be used in selling and deal-clinching situations, and it can be misused to manipulate people. But exercised constructively and to its full potential, persuasion supersedes sales and is quite the opposite of deception.

Effective persuasion becomes a negotiating and learning process through which a persuader leads colleagues to a problem’s shared solution.

Persuasion does indeed involve moving people to a position they don’t currently hold, but not by begging or cajoling. Instead, it involves careful preparation, the proper framing of arguments, the presentation of vivid supporting evidence, and the effort to find the correct emotional match with your audience.

Effective persuasion is a difficult and time-consuming proposition, but it may also be more powerful than the command-and-control managerial model it succeeds.

As AlliedSignal’s CEO Lawrence Bossidy said recently, “The day when you could yell and scream and beat people into good performance is over.

Today you have to appeal to them by helping them see how they can get from here to there, by establishing some credibility, and by giving them some reason and help to get there.

Do all those things, and they’ll knock down doors.” In essence, he is describing persuasion—now more than ever, the language of business leadership.

Think for a moment of your definition of persuasion. If you are like most businesspeople I have encountered (see the insert “Twelve Years of Watching and Listening”), you see persuasion as a relatively straightforward process.

First, you strongly state your position.

Second, you outline the supporting arguments, followed by a highly assertive, data-based exposition.

Finally, you enter the deal-making stage and work toward a “close.” In other words, you use logic, persistence, and personal enthusiasm to get others to buy a good idea. The reality is that following this process is one surefire way to fail at persuasion.

What, then, constitutes effective persuasion?

If persuasion is a learning and negotiating process, then in the most general terms it involves phases of discovery, preparation, and dialogue.

Getting ready to persuade colleagues can take weeks or months of planning as you learn about your audience and the position you intend to argue.

Before they even start to talk, effective persuaders have considered their positions from every angle. What investments in time and money will my position require from others? Is my supporting evidence weak in any way? Are there alternative positions I need to examine?
Dialogue happens before and during the persuasion process.

Before the process begins, effective persuaders use dialogue to learn more about their audience’s opinions, concerns, and perspectives.

During the process, dialogue continues to be a form of learning, but it is also the beginning of the negotiation stage.

You invite people to discuss, even debate, the merits of your position, and then to offer honest feedback and suggest alternative solutions.

That may sound like a slow way to achieve your goal, but effective persuasion is about testing and revising ideas in concert with your colleagues’ concerns and needs.

In fact, the best persuaders not only listen to others but also incorporate their perspectives into a shared solution.
Persuasion, in other words, often involves—indeed, demands—compromise.

Perhaps that is why the most effective persuaders seem to share a common trait: they are open-minded, never dogmatic. They enter the persuasion process prepared to adjust their viewpoints and incorporate others’ ideas.

That approach to persuasion is, interestingly, highly persuasive in itself. When colleagues see that a persuader is eager to hear their views and willing to make changes in response to their needs and concerns, they respond very positively. They trust the persuader more and listen more attentively. They don’t fear being bowled over or manipulated. They see the persuader as flexible and are thus more willing to make sacrifices themselves.

Because that is such a powerful dynamic, good persuaders often enter the persuasion process with judicious compromises already prepared.

Four Ways Not to Persuade

In my work with managers as a researcher and as a consultant, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to see executives fail miserably at persuasion. Here are the four most common mistakes people make:

1. They attempt to make their case with an up-front, hard sell. I call this the John Wayne approach. Managers strongly state their position at the outset, and then through a process of persistence, logic, and exuberance, they try to push the idea to a close. In reality, setting out a strong position at the start of a persuasion effort gives potential opponents something to grab onto—and fight against. It’s far better to present your position with the finesse and reserve of a lion tamer, who engages his “partner” by showing him the legs of a chair. In other words, effective persuaders don’t begin the process by giving their colleagues a clear target in which to set their jaws.

2. They resist compromise. Too many managers see compromise as surrender, but it is essential to constructive persuasion. Before people buy into a proposal, they want to see that the persuader is flexible enough to respond to their concerns. Compromises can often lead to better, more sustainable shared solutions.

By not compromising, ineffective persuaders unconsciously send the message that they think persuasion is a one-way street. But persuasion is a process of give-and-take. Kathleen Reardon, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Southern California, points out that a persuader rarely changes another person’s behavior or viewpoint without altering his or her own in the process. To persuade meaningfully, we must not only listen to others but also incorporate their perspectives into our own.

3. They think the secret of persuasion lies in presenting great arguments. In persuading people to change their minds, great arguments matter. No doubt about it. But arguments, per se, are only one part of the equation. Other factors matter just as much, such as the persuader’s credibility and his or her ability to create a proper, mutually beneficial frame for a position, connect on the right emotional level with an audience, and communicate through vivid language that makes arguments come alive.

4. They assume persuasion is a one-shot effort. Persuasion is a process, not an event. Rarely, if ever, is it possible to arrive at a shared solution on the first try. More often than not, persuasion involves listening to people, testing a position, developing a new position that reflects input from the group, more testing, incorporating compromises, and then trying again.

If this sounds like a slow and difficult process, that’s because it is. But the results are worth the effort.


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