The Art of Persuasion – How to get people to work with you, not against you

Sometimes it’s frustrating being a manager. You work hard to try to get the outcomes you believe are in the best interest of the organisation, but get slowed down by “difficult recalcitrant people” who somehow fail to immediately grasp the inherent wisdom in what you are proposing.

How do you get these people on board? How do you persuade them to either change their minds, or at least respect your approach enough that they don’t deliberately undermine you?

What we are talking about here is the art of persuasion.

The first writer about influencing people, Aristotle, said that in order to successfully persuade someone, you must:

  1. Have credibility
  2. Mount a powerful argument and
  3. Connect emotionally

In a 1998 Harvard Business Review Article “The Necessary Art of Persuasion”, Professor Ray J Conger expanded Aristotle’s basic idea in suggesting that, in organizations, there are four essential steps for effective persuasion

  1. Establish credibility
  2. Frame goals in a way that identifies common ground
  3. Provide evidence and
  4. Connect emotionally with your audience

Conger’s insight was that it was futile to try to persuade people without having a level of credibility and an argument that was in keeping with people’s interests.  Conger emphasised the need to frame your argument and goals around “common ground”.   


Establishing Credibility

Conger suggests that “in the workplace, credibility grows out of two sources: expertise and relationships.”

The expertise needed for credibility either exists, or if not can be developed over time or provided by others (usually expensive consultants).

When it comes to relational credibility, your credibility will largely depend on the answer to one question: Can you be trusted?

I’ll deal with how you establish credibility more fully in a future post as it is a critical enabler not only in the context of persuading others but for your career development more generally.


The importance of framing goals around Common Ground

My work as a mediator constantly provides me with an insight into the importance of leveraging the common ground. Mediations are usually situations where two parties walk into a room with fixed positions that are often diametrically opposed. The parties seek the assistance of an independent mediator because they have been unable to resolve their differences on their own.

People will often say prior to the mediation that “this will be a complete waste of time”. Yet, in over 95% of the cases I mediate, the parties resolve their differences. In almost every dispute the breakthrough comes only after the parties feel heard, gain a deeper understanding of the other person’s perspective and most importantly, a deeper understanding of their own core motivations – what they really want.

In workplace disputes parties usually learn that they both want to deliver great outcomes for the team and organisation, that they both want to be respected and treated fairly and that they both have contributed to the situation. They often discover that they both want the other person to succeed and grow their careers. With this knowledge and a deeper understanding of why the other person has behaved in the way they have, parties are usually able to move forward and find agreed solutions.

To frame goals around common ground you need to understand two things – what it is you want and what it is that the other person wants.

In a practical sense, in order to frame goals around the common ground you need to do three things:

  1. Listen – Invite your audience to share their views; stop talking for a moment about what you think and take the time to listen to what they have to say; allow people to be heard without interrupting them when they are speaking. (See link to How to be a Consummate Listener)
  2. Ask Open questions – Be curious – ask open questions (Who, What, When, Where and How?) to better understand their actions, thoughts, feelings and wants; and
  3. Confirm your understanding – you need to accurately summarise what’s been said so there is no doubt that you have understood their position. “So what you’re saying is…”

If you can reinforce that you understand what the person you’re trying to persuade wants (or doesn’t want) and highlight the things you both want, it’s amazing how you can cause the other person to shift their thinking. And it is very rare indeed not to be able to find some common ground.


Mounting a powerful argument that connects emotionally

 Aristotle and Conger both highlight that to persuade people you must connect with them emotionally. Conger says that just providing an ordinary argument and supporting evidence is not enough.

“The most effective persuaders supplement numerical data with examples, stories, metaphors and analogies to make their stories come alive. The use of language paints a vivid word picture, and in doing so, sends a compelling and tangible quality to the persuader’s point of view”.


I would add that when you are trying to influence others as the story teller, it is important that you draw on your own experiences, thoughts and emotions to help bring your story to life. Selectively sharing your experiences, thoughts, concerns and frustrations can often enhance your authenticity and deepen the emotional connection to your audience.


Key take-away


The art of persuasion requires three things. First, you need credibility. This involves having expertise and relational trust. Second, you need to frame your arguments around outcomes that both you and the other person want – the common ground. Finally, you need to communicate your ideas in a way that resonates and connects at an emotional level with the audience.

The key to unlocking the treasure chest of persuasion is discovering what the other person really wants. For only then will you be able to select the message, craft the story and connect in a way that taps into the emotions of your difficult, recalcitrant colleague.

If you can connect emotionally, you will in all likelihood persuade your colleague to accept the wisdom of your proposal, or at the very least, refrain from deliberately undermining you.


Mark Rosenberg