Appealing to people’s preferences to be more persuasive, respectfully

To clarify, this post isn’t about how to manipulate people and somehow put one over on them. That’s neither respectful nor likely to build trust in the long-term. In Zoomly’s ‘How to influence and persuade’ workshop the point is made from the start.

There are multiple everyday situations when we simply want to be heard, understood and, ideally, agreed with. Sometimes all goes to plan. Other times it seems we just can’t get our point across to the other person and we‘re met with one objection after another. What’s going on? The keys to this are to discover how someone perceives a situation and what matters to them. The best way to experience this is to be your own guinea pig.

Try this question: do you prefer to focus on possible problems or gains?

Nothing right or wrong about your response to this – you’re simply identifying your preference. Chances are you do both, yet you probably tend towards one more than the other.

A. Do you find yourself thinking: ‘What are all the things that could go wrong?’, ‘What problem must I avoid?’, ‘How can I minimise the risk?’

B. Do you find yourself thinking: ‘How can we reach the target?’, ‘What are the opportunities?’, ‘How do we achieve the goal?’

If the examples in A resonate with you more than those in B, your focus is more likely to be ‘away from’ a possible problem. There are plenty of situations when that’s a smart move. For example, you may want a low risk investment. Or at work, you may need reassurance that a prior problem has been dealt with and lessons learned before you can give a new initiative the go-ahead.

If you found B to be more similar to your typical responses, your preference is to take a ‘towards’ approach, with eyes on the prize. This can be great for building enthusiasm and motivation. There’s no ‘right way’ to respond; these are simply different ways of perceiving a situation.

Let’s say your preference is for ‘towards’ thinking and you want a colleague to support your idea. You talk to them with great enthusiasm, painting a vivid picture of how well it will work and what advantages it will bring. Your colleague says they’d like to help but want to know the possible pitfalls before they’ll back you up. Unless and until you can satisfy their ‘away from’ need to consider all the potential obstacles, you won’t get their support. Or vice versa: Your colleague is keen to reduce project overruns to 0% but isn’t giving you a sense of what the rewards could be. Take these steps to be more persuasive:

  • Reflect on where your preference lies and the situations when that has (and hasn’t) worked for you– and with whom.
  • Notice how others’ preferences show up. Pay particular attention to their language. If you’re unsure, ask “What’s important to you about this?”– their response will give you clues about what they need.
  • Expand your repertoire so that you can express ideas in ways that appeal to both preferences (not just yours). For example, “If we miss this deadline, we could lose the contract. We need to agree a plan for delivering the prototype in good time.”

You may find this post useful: ‘How to influence without manipulating’


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’



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