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Your Completely Hidden Power Of Persuasion

A single word, 10 psychological theories, and real-world proof that we consistently underestimate our ability to influence others.

Your Completely Hidden Power Of Persuasion
[Photo: Flickr user Broad Bean Media]

How many times have you kept your mouth shut because your brain was telling you no one would listen to your idea anyway?

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Vanessa Bohns, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at the ILR School at Cornell University, believes that self-doubt and fear of rejection is actually holding us back from opportunities in the workplace.

“Our bosses and peers would be more receptive to our comments and requests than most of us realize,” she writes in Harvard Business Review. “In fact, in many cases, a simple request or suggestion would be enough to do the trick. We persistently underestimate our influence.”

In collaboration with Frank Flynn, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Bohns conducted a series of experiments aimed at illuminating how much we underestimate our own powers of persuasion.

To do this, they asked participants to predict how many strangers they would need to ask before they were able to persuade someone to fill out a questionnaire, make a donation to charity, or let them borrow their phone. After giving their estimates, participants were turned loose to see how it all turned out in the real world.

It turns out that people they never met were two times as likely as they predicted to go along with participants’ requests. Getting such a sweet surprise on the street from a stranger isn’t going to go far to change mind-sets in the workplace, Bohns points out, where there is just as big a disconnect between expectation and reality.

“Because most companies emphasize the rigidity and formality of their hierarchies, employees tend to assume that their influence is dependent upon their roles or titles—that if they lack official clout, they can’t ask for anything,” she writes. That and the fact that underlings fail to remember that managers are people, too. And people often find it hard to say no, even the boss.

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Through her research, Bohns observes that we aren’t just bad at asking for things we want, but we are also not very attuned to others’ motivation to want to help. She recommends becoming more aware of language. In addition to ignoring fear of rejection and just asking, Bohns advises speaking up directly and not couching the idea or request with a favor in exchange for compliance.

The Most Powerful Words

A study from MIT boiled down dialogue at meetings to words that had the most power to sway colleagues. Among them: yeah, give, start, and discuss.

Yeah?

Dialogue segments where the word “yeah” is used included: “Or yeah, maybe even just a limited multicolor so it doesn’t look too childish,” “Yeah, if you had one of those, just coming back to your other point about pressing the button and setting off the bleeper in the room,” “Yeah, if you are holding it in your hand you could do that.” Judging from these and similar dialogue segments, our hypothesis is that framing a suggestion as an agreement with a previous suggestion increases its chances of being accepted.

For those who persist in thinking, “Oh, I’ll never get them to agree to this,” you could fill out your influencer’s toolkit with one (or 10) of the psychological theories that have the power to persuade. They include tactics such as priming (influencing the person ahead of time by setting the stage with stimuli designed to make them think a certain way) or employing the scarcity principle (making a case for the item in question–including yourself–to be highly coveted and in short supply).

The Charm Of Three

And there is always the “charm of three,” which is when you use three positive claims to back up your idea or request. A Georgetown University study found that three is the magic number when it comes to persuasion, as two is too few and four makes people skeptical.

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Whichever route you choose the next time you are trying to get to “yes,” it’s important to be prepared for someone to say “no.” Bill McGowan, author of Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time Every Time, told Fast Company in a previous interview that not being honest about the potential for risk could backfire. Instead, come armed with what action you will take if all doesn’t proceed according to plan.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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