Everyday Matters: The dark side of persuasion

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 17, 2020 - February 23, 2020.
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When it comes to persuasion, emotions usually trump intellect. — Australian politician William Peters (1903-1978)


What do you do when you want someone to heed your advice but they are reluctant to do so? You coax, you cajole, you coerce and, God forbid, you threaten.

Welcome to the shady side of persuasion.

There has been a lot of news in the media lately of people who were “coerced” into doing things that they normally would not do, and as these dastardly deeds, mostly involving politicians, surface in our august courts, I believe it is timely to look at the interconnected skills of persuasion and influence and their relationship to styles of leadership.

So, what differentiates influence from persuasion? Many believe persuasion is short term in nature while influence plays a longer game. We agree that persuasion skills are important but wielded wrongly, they can be dangerous.

The dark art of persuasion covers many sins: bribery, blackmail, bullying, deceit and deception — and they all work! Attractive and effective these tools may be but we would be wise to set them aside.

There is a subtler art of persuasion that all leaders must learn if they want to be successful. This is the art of persuasive conversation: convincing others to support you and your ideas. Do this well and they will follow you willingly, not reluctantly.

We have all been victims of crafty sales people, colleagues or bosses who use brilliant persuasion techniques to make us do something that we later regret. And the next time we see them, we know not to trust them. They can use the tricks of persuasion to fool us once but we will not be fooled again.

Influence, on the other hand, is persuading people the right way. While persuasion is necessary for compliance, influence helps in converting someone to believe in our values and overall way of life.

In his tome, The Code of Influence, author Paul Mascetta defines compliance as getting someone to do what you want them to do because you have the authority to do so. You have not necessarily affected their belief system. What you have affected is their thought process: You have got them to act in ways that they may not necessarily like. They may comply because outside factors, such as huge short-term rewards, are used as incentives.

Conversion, meanwhile, is the end-product of influence. Conversion is when you completely change someone’s beliefs. When you can do that, they will fully buy into your message. When they fully buy into your message, they will follow you even without you saying anything. You become more of a symbol of what they agree and identify with.

Influence comes from the Latin word “influere”, which means to flow into. Influence is the ability of a person or leader to affect, shape or transform the opinions and behaviours or actions of other people without necessarily having a formal authority over them. Influencing is soft or personal power, independent of one’s positional power.

Influence is something we learn in childhood. It takes place in families, among friends, in communities, at the workplace and, more broadly, in society. A recent Yale University research shows that the average person influences 100 or more people a day.

Influencers believe they have goals they want to achieve, and they think deeply about how they want to get there. They see the world through other people’s eyes and adapt their message and behaviour accordingly. The ideal outcome is not simply to persuade someone but to build an alliance of mutual trust and respect. Achieving this requires a huge investment of time, effort and skill. But it is an investment that yields rich dividends over a long period.

Influencers play for much higher stakes than persuaders. Influencers do not want a one-off success. They want to build commitment that lasts. This means that influencers think and act differently from persuaders.

Persuaders start and finish with their own needs. They want to sell their product or plant their idea in other people’s heads. Communication tends to be one-way: the persuader does most of the talking as he extols the virtues of the product or idea he wants to push.

Persuasion is the here-and-now skill that leaders have to learn. If we think we are going to have to deal with someone regularly, it pays to learn influence and persuasion. If we think we will never meet that someone again, then we can use every trick in the persuader’s little black book: You need not worry about what that will do to your influence and trust.

For example, persuading your friend to go to the restaurant of your choice can be very different from persuading your child to do his homework or persuading a person in authority to agree to a project that may harm the nation in the long term but may profit you in the short term.

Many have used this dark side of persuasion to their own benefit. I put forward here my very own manual to help you increase your powers of persuasion:

• Identify the problem. All our decisions are made to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. But statistically, people actually do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. If you can identify a problem or, more importantly, a desire to avoid a problem for your target, you are well on your way to positioning yourself to persuading him.

• Identify the consequence of the problem. Once you have identified the unwanted issue in your target’s life, you now show him how not taking action to correct the issue will result in more pain for him. Ultimately, you are selling a solution. But sometimes you cannot do that unless the person knows that he has a problem. So, the first step is showing him his problem.

• Identify the chosen solution. Here, you simply have your target select the outcome that he thinks will solve his problem. The best way to do this is by asking questions such as “What do you think would fix this?” “What would be the ideal outcome for you?” or “What would you prefer?”

• Identify the consequences of the solution. It is very important that your target accepts and understands every aspect of the new outcome and fully supports it. If he does not, he will blame you the moment things do not work out as planned.

• Check for confirmation. Make sure that the chosen outcome is something that your target truly wants. Gaining compliance and gaining pacification are two different things. Make sure your target is not telling you what you want to hear for the sake of not being combative.

• Ensure the solution is beneficial. Make sure that any solution that you provide will give long-lasting results. This will not only make your target happy but also lead to more opportunities for you to influence and do more business with him.

There you have it, a manual to persuade and perhaps manipulate. Alone, some of your dreams will remain impossible. But with influence and persuasion, you can turn your dreams into reality. Because influence and persuasion mean working with people, that means we share the burden. We will actually achieve more by working less. Good luck with testing my guidelines!

Zakie Shariff is managing partner of Kuber Venture Bhd, a specialist investment company. He is also a director of Universiti Malaysia Pahang.

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