How to Learn Persuasion

Persuasion is a soft skill that enables you to change another person’s opinion.

Persuasion is a process that can only be learned if you are open to the idea that someone you disagree with may have a valid opinion.

The first step is figuring out what beliefs they hold that they use as the justification for their opinion. For example, if you have a manager who is of the opinion that everyone should show up in the office at 8:00 am sharp for a daily status meeting, they may hold one or more beliefs:

  • Perhaps they believe that getting the status meeting out of the way before 9 am allows people to work without the distraction for the rest of the day.
  • Perhaps they believe that since they get to work at 7:00 am, it’s reasonable to ask their staff to be in the office by 8:00 am.
  • Perhaps they believe that it impresses their boss when they make their staff work long hours.

Avoid asking them about their underlying beliefs directly, as this has a good chance of putting them on the defensive. Instead, get them talking about their decision-making process and motivations, and make a note of any clues that indicate their beliefs. 

Second, express to them that you consider their beliefs to be valid and that you understand why they hold the view that they do. Your goal in doing this is to position yourself as an ally rather than an enemy. For example:

  • “I can definitely see how nice it would be to get the status meeting out of the way early.”
  • “I didn’t realize how early you started your day and appreciate you giving us an extra hour to get into the office.”
  • “I can see how it makes us look good to be the team that works the longest hours.”

Being able to see an issue from another person’s point-of-view is a critical aspect of persuasion, and this approach both opens them up to be persuaded and establishes your credibility as someone whose perspective is worth considering. 

Third, use emotional observations that work to shift – but not attack – their beliefs. If you attack what they believe, they will become defensive and impossible to persuade. Here is what you should never do:

  • “Why can’t we just send an email of our status rather than having to show up for a group meeting?”
  • “You should work regular hours like the rest of us.”
  • “We shouldn’t be judged on the hours we work, but how productive we all. “

All of these are rational observations, but they directly attack their beliefs and will, therefore, put them on the defensive. 

Here is what you should do instead:

  • “I wonder if we could find a better way to share our status so that we could all get to spend an extra hour with our families in the morning.”
  • “I wish there was a way for us to start our day at the same time so that you didn’t have to work more hours than the rest of us.”
  • “I hope no one has to deal with mental health issues from having to work more hours.”

Emotional arguments are far more persuasive than using logic and reason, so avoid facts and figures at all costs. For example, consider which of these two statements are more likely to persuade someone not to make their workers work overtime:

  • “Studies have shown that 63% of workers suffer from moderate-to-severe burnout within the first 3 years of their career.”
  • “Our team is so burned out right now I’m surprised everyone hasn’t already quit.”

Your ultimate goal is to slowly shift someone’s opinion closer to the one you want them to have, not to instantly make them abandon their beliefs. This requires patience and a long-term strategic approach. If you make progress in changing their opinion them a little, then you should have confidence you may be able to change it a little more. Over time, these small shifts in opinion can add up to the significant shift that was your original goal, and the better you become at persuasion, the less time you will need.

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