Convincing People

by Krishna on July 14, 2010

How do you make someone change their opinions? Scott Berkun has an article with some thoughts on how to convince people, primarily that you have to understand the viewpoint of the other person and try to put your argument in their terms. Instead of what a change means in abstract terms, explain the benefits that will accrue to them and perhaps that will turn their minds around.

There are many such mechanisms to convince people. One of the better books I have read on the topic is Robert Cialdini'sInfluence: The Psychology of Persuasion”. Cialdini identified devices such as reciprocation, commitment, consistency, scarcity, liking, authority and social proof that aid in getting people to do what you want. He called them “weapons of influence” because they can be used for evil too, and you should be wary of bad elements trying to manipulate you with them.

Some of these influence mechanisms, such as scarcity, are short-term and are mostly useful in a sales situation. The long-term way to influence people is to ensure that you are doing everything that builds their trust in you and that you are repaying that trust in your dealings with them.

This is one goal that is worth striving for in professional life. This is the whole idea behind gaining a good education, continuously learning and acquiring the right experience. By demonstrating your knowledge and skills, you allow customers to trust you. But it also serves the real purpose of having the expertise so that customers are actually right in trusting you.

Trust is a fluctuating resource. Everyone starts with a level of trust. Sometimes this can be negative (for example, criminals). Your interactions with others either increases or decreases the trust. The unfortunate thing about trust is that while it takes a huge effort to build complete trust, a single wrong move can totally deplete it. People have different trusting personalities, ranging from gullible to suspicious. And they may also (rightly) trust you differently on different subjects. For example, while they may accept everything you say on electronics, your advice on car maintenance falls on deaf ears.

This is all perfectly normal human behavior. You have to work within these constraints and prove that you are worthy of the initial trust. You have to show your proper credentials. At work, that is easy as long as you stay within your area of expertise. Once you go outside your specialization, first you need to explain to people why they should take you seriously.

Many change advocates miss this point and go right to the “pros” part of the discussion. And they fail to understand why people miss such obvious advantages and get angry about it. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that the other persons simply don’t trust them. Maybe they are worried about their motives or capabilities, but there it is.

The biggest example of this is in politics. In many cases, a liberal political leader cuts deals with Wall Street or a conservative politician makes peace with an enemy nation, both contrary to the instincts of their political party, but which party loyalists defend because they trust the leader and her motives while a similar step from their opposition would have raised howls and protests.

So first gain trust. Being sincere helps. Then convincing them becomes much easier.

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