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Getting Others to Change

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Convincing others—persuading them to change rather than compelling them—is often difficult but an essential leadership skill. Dr. Robert Cialdini, an expert in persuasion, has developed six principles for persuading people to change their ideas or course of action:

  • Reciprocity: You give something, so that the other person wants to give back to you.
  • Scarcity: You create a sense of urgency around the idea or action.
  • Authority: You cite the recommendations of experts and/or you show your own qualifications to suggest the change.
  • Liking: You are likeable—if you are liked, your ideas are more apt to be liked.
  • Consistency: You ask for a small commitment (part of the action or change) first and then the larger commitment.
  • Consensus: You explain what others have done in that situation or a similar situation.

How Do Those Principles Apply to Work?

When transferred to a work environment, those principles require you to:

  • Understand who your audience is—put the other individual first and get to know them—you have given them your time and attention as they talk first and can then ask for theirs.
  • Refer to time constraints or the critical need for a change, but combine urgency with the “but you are free” (BYAF) compliance technique (“you are free to do otherwise”), which many studies have confirmed as a technique that almost invariably works.
  • Gather the facts, provide metrics for results, and otherwise demonstrate your knowledge; call in experts to support your viewpoint.
  • Listen closely to the other person’s or group’s perspective, look for areas of agreement, and provide honest compliments about the parts you agree with; stress that you are working together to reach a goal.
  • Keep your goal and their goal in mind at all times—you may not change someone’s mind or behavior immediately, but you can still achieve commitment to your idea (“let’s give this a try”).
  • Gather information from other organizations, teams, or leaders in how they have approached the problem solving or decision making in similar situations and—for your own sake—how they have influenced the decision.

How Do You Prepare to Persuade?

You need to be absolutely clear about what you want, why you want it, and what you were settle for. Avoid concentrating on winning; instead, strive for agreement on a first step. Try to be helpful, not confrontational.

As always, clear communication is vital. Practice what you need to say but don’t trap yourself in a monologue; people have little tolerance for being lectured at. You need to first establish rapport with and respect for the people you are trying to persuade.

In face-to-face encounters, body language is as persuasive as words. Take feedback gracefully; it is vital if you fail to persuade and need to return to the topic again or objectively evaluate a competing idea or action, especially if that one is chosen.

Gather facts: find out how other people in your industry or profession are taking the same action or implementing the same change and the results they’ve obtained. However, do not try to hem people in with facts and experts, forcing them to make a decision that is uncomfortable for them. 

Frame your conclusion as a question that calls for a vocal “yes.” If you don’t hear a “yes,” you very likely do not have the commitment you think you have. 

In written communication, inclusive language, factual information, and story-telling techniques are helpful: you want the document to show that you understand your audience and the facts and put your ideas or recommendations in an interesting framework, with stories that demonstrate the experiences of others or the effects of the current situation if a decision is not made. Again, you need to include a question that calls for a “yes” (“may we talk about this further at our Monday meeting?”). Organization is very important; for a long document, start with an abstract or summary before going into details.

What Can You Do If You Fail to Persuade?

If you receive a “no” at the end, or even “I’ll think about it,” you don’t necessarily need to concede complete defeat. Your discussion with the individual should have brought out information about their concerns and obstacles to change—elements of the situation that you may not have considered in your first attempt. 

The more you know about the other person’s reluctance to change, the better armed you will be at a second encounter with this person regarding this situation or at your first encounter with a different person in a similar situation. You will know what objections you are likely to hear and can prepare to meet them.

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