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How to Understand the Ways People Think

In 1991, Guns N’ Roses simultaneously released a pair of albums, titled Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. They aren’t talked about much about these days, but their titles can serve as a reminder that understanding how people think is crucial to your own successful persuasion efforts.

I’m talking about cognitive illusions — perceptions based on prior assumptions or knowledge. Here are three common cognitive illusions and how they often play out in business environments.

1. “The promotion was a success! We sold 500,000 units.”

Yes, but because of the marketing expenses and discounts issued, you’re company actually lost money! This is an example of the cognitive illusion of selective recall: Where you stand depends on where you sit.

People in sales see the world one way. People in accounting see things in another, much different, way. And people in the legal department take yet another view. If you want to make sure your persuasive attempts gain traction, avoid falling prey to this very common mental blind spot.

Every situation, every offer, every result has strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons. If you want to hear “yes,” know and acknowledge them. This proves you are smart enough to recognize both sides of the story, as well as honest enough to bring them to the forefront.

2. “We should create a first-time buyer’s program! Here are three success stories.”

Never mind that, historically, 87 percent of participants in those programs default on their loans. This is an example of a cognitive illusion known as base rate neglect, which ignores background statistics in favor of compelling anecdotal information.

Make no mistake, anecdotal information is powerful stuff. But sprinkle in solid statistical evidence, and it creates a one-two persuasive punch that is a naysayer knockout.

3. “I’ll only green-light the project if we are certain of its success.”

Nothing is guaranteed. This is the cognitive illusion of certainty desire — unrealistically needing to have absolute confidence in a given action. Well, that’s not how business (or life!) works. Warren Buffet says that business is all about doing your research, and then rolling the dice. Your persuasion attempts are like that, too.

It would be impossible to give your persuasion target a success guarantee. But if you want to improve your chances of hearing “yes,”, simply acknowledge your target’s desire to mitigate risk and say something along the lines of, “I can’t guarantee success, but I can guarantee we’ve done the necessary background work, and our team will do everything in our power to put this one on the scoreboard.”

There are literally hundreds of cognitive illusions, but I see these three play out quite frequently in organizations.

Persuasion is about ethically wining the hearts and minds of your targets, not putting one over on somebody. You must be convinced that your ask is good for your company, good for you, and good for your industry (or, at a minimum, not harmful).

It’s imperative to use the momentum of mental patterns to know when to use what information and to point out any potential harm to the organization. When you do, you’ll hear “yes” — faster and more frequently than you ever thought possible.

Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash.

Your Favorite Website: IAmRight.com

One of my favorite sports pundits often say, “We all visit the same website: IAmRight.com.” 

By that, he means we seek facts, stats and opinions that prove our hypothesis or our preconceptions. The person we hired is doing a fantastic job, the program we launched is performing exactly as intended or the product our team created is adding what we thought it would to our market share.

You might recognize this phenomenon as confirmation bias. It’s real. And it’s a problem.

Confirmation bias can lead to poor decision-making because it provides people with all the reasons to support their own claims and aims, with nothing to refute. If you’re attempting to ethically win the heart and mind of your target, you must do your due diligence and look at all relevant data sets to make sure that what you’re proposing is the right thing to do. Once you’re convinced that your proposal is the right thing for your target, for you and for the situation at hand, acknowledge the bias.

How to Leverage Confirmation Bias

Let’s say you’re proposing that your company partner with a specific new supplier. Leveraging confirmation bias in persuasion can sound like this: “I found one I think would be a great fit. So I looked for reasons why we should partner with this company. I looked at locale, capacity and all the things that company does well. And that’s exactly what I found — reasons why we should partner.”

But don’t stop there: “I’d be fooling myself if we didn’t do our due diligence, and I want to be sure I’m not falling prey to this thing called confirmation bias — by only seeing what I want to see. I suggest we have a few others, people who aren’t as close to this decision as I am, take a hard look at this potential partner and help determine if it would be a good fit.”

Taking this deliberate approach can dramatically improve the chances of your recommendation being accepted. It also shows you’ve thought deeply about this decision, you’ve done the necessary background work and you’re offering up your analysis for peer review.

Organizationally, you’ll be seen as intelligent, honest and a person of integrity.

Why?

Because you are.

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Show Off Your Expertise and Hear ‘Yes’ More Often

Do you know that where you make your request is just as important as how you make that request?

For proof, I refer you to a study by Robert Cialdini — one of my favorite psychologists and the man who developed the six principles of persuasion. Cialdini evaluated the effectiveness of medical professionals by comparing patient compliance with a set of recommendations issued by both physicians and physical therapists. He discovered that patients were complying 100 percent of the time with directives from physicians but only about 35 percent of the time with ones originating from the physical therapists.

Intrigued, Cialdini considered the environment in which these directives were given. Physicians often dressed in a white lab coat and shared their insight from an environment in which state licensing credentials, medical school diplomas and other indications of their expertise were highly visible.

When Cialdini examined the environment in which physical therapists often dispensed their recommendations, he took note of the preponderance of crazy motivational posters — like those ones with kittens that encourage you to “hang in there.” Now, these professionals had impressive credentials, too. But they weren’t displaying them to their patients.

Once Cialdini recommended replacing the cat posters with wall hangings similar to those of the physicians involved in his study, patient compliance among the physical therapists increased significantly.

What does this have to do with your persuasion efforts? It’s simple: Display your own expertise in your office.

If you have credentials, show them. If you’ve got certificates, post them. If you’ve got diplomas, get them out for the world to see.

I bet you’ll start hearing “yes” more often.

The Persuasive Art of Requesting Testimonials

Often, the most important tools in your toolbox are customers’ and clients’ opinions of you. In a word: testimonials.

In the science of persuasion, this is often referred to as social proof. We follow the lead of similar others. How do most people choose with whom they do business? They ask their friends or professional peers for suggestions.

But don’t wait for others to share the good work your company does. Rather, focus on cultivating your own impressive library of testimonials. Here’s what you need to know.

There are moments of power in social exchanges. And, like Robert Cialdini taught me, if you know how to operate in those moments, you are at a significant advantage. When a client or customer says “thank you” to you, how do you typically respond? You probably say something like: “Happy to help!” If that’s the case, you’ve just fumbled a huge persuasive moment.

In that moment of gratitude, you should … CAPTURE A TESTIMONIAL!

When someone thanks you for something specific — be it a service, a product, a solution or for exceeding expectations — say this: “Terrific! I’m so glad I could help. Hey, would you be willing to help us help others? Would you type out what you just told me in a brief email so we can spread the good news of what we’re doing here?”

Now you have dramatically increased the likelihood of obtaining a testimonial.

Three More Ways to Capture Testimonials

Other options exist besides asking the customer or client to email you a testimonial. Consider posing these questions:

  • Could we take a moment now for me to write your comments down?
  • Would you like me to write something up later and send it to you for your approval?
  • Would you be able to text your comments to me by the end of business today?

If you practice this approach every time a client or customer says “thank you” to you — and I mean every time, for any reason, no matter how small you consider the accomplishment — you will have an almost never-ending supply of powerful testimonials.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.

How to Escape the ‘Either/Or’ Dilemma

“Either/or.”

That’s a turn of phrase passed down from generation to generation of people trying — unsuccessfully — to persuade others. And it brings to mind such negative stereotypes as white shoes and plaid pants. But if you look at the phrase intelligently — and apply the psychology of persuasion — it can be transformed into a powerful tool.

Consider this: “Well, Corey, I’ve got time to see you either this afternoon at 2:00 or tomorrow morning at 10:00. Which of those times works for you?”

The thinking here is that you have cleverly crafted your language in such a way that your would-be client will have to pick one of those times, and voilà — you have advanced in the persuasion progression. The problem? That isn’t really what happens.

In fact, a statement like the one above actually makes some potential clients want to resist. Their first instinct is to say, “No.”

Why? Some psychologists call this reactance. They resent the fact that you are forcing their hand, and they want to resist.

Sure, they still may pick one of your options. But they will resent you for it.

So how can you change this approach?

Easy: “Corey, I’ve got time to see you either this afternoon at 2:00 or tomorrow morning at 10:00. Do either of those times work for you?”

I changed one key word. I replaced “which” with “do either,” and it completely altered the complexion of the ask. It’s assertive, not aggressive. It’s subtle and sophisticated, and it in no way creates pushback.

What if neither of those times are convenient for the customer? Simply find another time on which you both can agree.

Your use of language is one of the keys to persuasion success. The words you use and the phrases you choose have a huge bearing on what a client thinks, says and does.

Get smarter, and become more persuasive.

Why ‘Yes Success’ Is So Hard for Some People

Many professionals take (at best) a mindless approach to persuasion. What I mean is that, either consciously or subconsciously, they simply assume that just because they’ve heard people say “yes” to them — and they’ve given the same response to others — they understand the complexities of attaining agreement.

That supposition couldn’t be further from the truth. The act of persuasion remains a significant obstacle for a lot of people, and they might not even realize it.

Like failing to look in your blind spot to eye a fast-approaching semi-trailer truck behind you on a narrow two-lane highway, ignoring this obstacle can lead to disastrous results.

On the other had, some people absolutely abhor persuasion. They want nothing to do with it, think it smacks of “sales,” and conjures images of white shoes, plaid jackets and glad-handing used-car salesmen.

But successful people — professionals at the top of their game — understand that it is not only okay for them to use persuasion; it is incumbent upon them to do so. 

Having someone say “yes” to your ideas, offers and suggestions ranks among the greatest achievements in the business world. It represents validation, respect and acceptance among your peers and others. In author Daniel Pink’s survey of U.S. workers, “What Do You Do at Work?,” for his book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, he discovered that full-time, non-sales workers spent 24 out of every 60 minutes involved in persuasion efforts. To say effective persuasion is merely important is to engage in extreme understatement.

Achieving ‘Yes Success’

Persuasion requires intellectual lifting. Understanding your target, knowing how to increase the value of your offering (or, conversely, decrease the resistance of your target), choosing the right words, and determining the timing of your persuasive efforts all are prerequisites of effective persuasion

The fact that you are reading this right now means you’re willing to take steps to break out of the persuasion paradox.

Here’s something to ponder this week: If you could flip a switch and receive guaranteed “yes success,” who do you want to say yes to what?

Photo by Drahomír Posteby-Mach on Unsplash.

Persuasion vs. Influence: What’s the Difference?

LinkedIn analyzed thousands of job postings and listed “persuasion” as one of the top five in-demand skills for 2019.

But to the uninitiated, that term “persuasion” has negative connotations.

After all, when someone says, “You’re not going to persuade me!” it’s usually spoken in defiance. Or a well-intentioned person might proclaim, “I would never try to persuade someone.”

But here’s the thing: Persuasion is not coercive, conniving or devious. Drop that inaccurate psychological baggage right now. No one can be persuaded to do something they don’t want to do. Somebody may have second thoughts or experience buyer’s remorse, but that’s another subject entirely.

As regular visitors to this website may recall, I define persuasion as ethically winning the heart and mind of your target.

• “Ethically” means simply doing something honestly and without trickery or deceit.

• “Winning” means gaining agreement with your suggestion, idea or position.

• “Heart” refers to gaining emotional buy-in.

• “Mind” refers to logical buy-in.

• “Target” represents the specific person you are attempting to persuade.

A term often used in conjunction with persuasion is “influence.” Influence is the capacity to become a compelling force that produces effects on the opinions, actions and behavior of others.

Occasionally, I use the term “influence” as an effect that “nudges” a target toward thinking positively about my request. But I’d like for you to primarily think of influence as your professional and personal credibility, your organizational and political capital, your corporate “sway.”

Remember: Persuasion is an action; influence is a state or condition. Use both wisely, and you’re bound to achieve new levels of success.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash.

Do You Wear a Halo or Horns?

What if the first impression you leave is far from angelic? If positivity is the halo effect, then the opposite impression must be the “horns effect.” Something about you is off-putting to someone else. And much like the halo effect, the horns effect can color your interactions with others.

Here is a quick way to overcome less-than-saintly impressions.

Be More like Ben Franklin

Known for many things, including astute observations of human behavior and practicing persuasion, Franklin in 1736 was chosen without opposition to be clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The next year, he again was chosen. But this time, a new Assembly member offered a long argument against Franklin and in support of another candidate. Franklin won out, but he found it disconcerting that the Assembly member — a person of influence — rallied so publicly against him. Franklin knew he needed to win him over but didn’t want to appear obsequious or servile in his approach.

So what did Ben do?

He eventually asked his adversary if he would be so kind as to lend him a rare book from his library. Franklin was renowned for his discerning taste in books, and his target proudly agreed to lend him the requested copy. Franklin showed his gratitude with a nice note later on, and the two men enjoyed a life-long positive relationship from that day on.

This episode is said to have inspired Franklin to coin this aphorism: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Creating Your Halo

The clear takeaway here is to do everything you can to create a positive entry point with your persuasion target.

In the earliest stages of a professional relationship, you should dress well, behave in a friendly and approachable style, and be well-read, well-traveled and conversational. You must articulate your value and add important contributions to discussions. Make a favorable impression early, and you’ll dramatically improve the likelihood of hearing “yes” later.

What if you’re meeting for the first time an important target with whom you want to cultivate a positive and persuasive relationship? The savvy professional puts thought into not only how to make a positive impression, but also how to shape conversations. Consider the context of the meeting: Will it be a formalized business setting in a boardroom? Or will it be a more casual one-on-one exchange in an office? Conduct some research and explore similarities, interests and unusual aspects of the other person’s background. Be prepared to speak intelligently about the issue at hand, ask smart questions, and add a thought-provoking perspective. But don’t overdo it and feel the need to become an expert on every potential topic to be discussed.

The halo effect invokes the image of concentric circles on a body of water. As long as you can make one favorable impression with someone early on, you’ll build positivity in other areas of your business relationship.

How the ‘Halo Effect’ Impacts the Way We See Others

The “halo effect” — or, as it’s scientifically known, “exaggerated emotional coherence” — doesn’t receive the attention it should. The halo effect occurs when we judge others positively in one aspect of their lives (appearance, wit, charm, industriousness) and then apply positive feelings to them for other, often unrelated areas (problem-solving, leadership, sales prowess).

Edward Thorndike first observed the halo effect in 1920, when he analyzed military officer rankings of subordinates. If a soldier boasted a strong physical appearance, he also typically was considered to have impressive leadership abilities. If he were loyal, he also was rated as highly intelligent. The correlations proved way too consistent for Thorndike, who determined that officers’ impressions in one area of a soldier’s experience too often colored their impressions in another.

That practice holds true today. If someone is attractive, he also usually is considered smart. If a person appears enthusiastic, she often also is perceived as hard working. Friendly? Must be a good leader, too.

Priming the Halo Pump

When it comes to evaluating people, first is always foremost. People remember the first piece of data they receive about a person, and their subsequent impressions are shaped by that data.

One of the earliest and most enduring studies of first impressions and the halo effect was completed by Solomon Asch, who asked people to evaluate the personalities of two individuals named Alan and Ben.

Alan was: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious

Ben was: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent

Obviously, the series of adjectives used to describe Alan is simply reversed for Ben. Here’s the catch: Although the same words appeared in a different sequence, test subjects always viewed Alan significantly more favorably than Ben. Even Alan’s negative characteristics were seen more positively, because of the positivity applied to the initial descriptors.

If someone you view positively possesses a stubbornness streak, you consider him a person who takes a principled stand. On the other hand, if you already have a negative impression of that person, the stubbornness can be seen as a sign of inflexibility and unwillingness to consider new ideas.

Next time, I’ll explain how you can leverage your own “halo” and what to do when you’re not exactly an angel!

How Resilient Are You?

What’s the single most important skill that a sales professional — and, really, all professionals — can have?

This is a question I often ask workshop participants. And I often receive the usual responses: Product knowledge! Adaptation! Listening!

When that happens, I nod as I move the conversation from person to person. When I finish, I pause a beat and say, “It’s none of those.”

The single most important skill that a sales professional can possess is resilience: The ability to recover from failure. And I don’t mean bounce back; I mean bounce forward.

University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, who is director of the Positive Psychology Center and former president of the American Psychological Association, has done groundbreaking research in this area.

One of his studies was done with the financial services giant Northwestern Mutual Life. When asked to review a survey given to prospective new NML salespeople, Dr. Seligman noted that they weren’t testing for resiliency. They added “resilience” to their hiring instrument and — voila!— the resilient salespeople who were hired wound up outselling everyone else.

How do you become more resilient?

The first thing you must do is be aware of what’s going on in your head, often referred to as your mental dialogue. Your self-talk impacts thoughts, emotions, actions, careers and, ultimately, the rest of your life.

The following quote, attributed to everyone from Mahatma Gandhi and Ralph Waldo Emerson to the president of a leading supermarket chain, illustrates this cause and effect:

Watch your thoughts, they become words;

Watch your words, they become actions;

Watch your actions, they become habits;

Watch your habits, they become your character;

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

The point is made even more elegantly in one of my favorite books of all time, As a Man Thinketh, by philosopher James Allen and originally published in 1902. (It may very well have been the first “self-help” book.)

“Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armory of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself,” Allen wrote. “He also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.”

What are you building?

If you want to become more resilient, it starts by dealing with your thoughts and whether or not they are aligned with reality.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash