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The Emotionally Intelligent Person’s Guide To Being Persuasive

These ridiculously simple brain hacks can subtly encourage people to decide in your favor.

The Emotionally Intelligent Person’s Guide To Being Persuasive
Photo: Katii Bishop via Pexels Photo: Katii Bishop via Pexels

You’re a pretty rational person, or so you think: You’re often good at thinking logically and keeping your feelings out of it, right?

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Wrong. (Sorry!) It wasn’t long ago that people believed emotions and logic were two completely separate things, operating independently of one another. But breakthroughs in brain science have made it clear that that’s far from true. It turns out that our brains are incapable of making fully unemotional decisions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, you can use that cognitive reality in your favor to build relationships, network, and gain influence.

How Your Brain Uses Emotions

Our brains use emotion to assign value to our ideas and experiences–our feelings about things mark them in our minds as good or bad or somewhere in between. And there’s a reason for that: It’s how the brain distinguishes between what matters and what’s irrelevant. These emotional assessments then serve as the basis of our decision-making process. In the simplest terms, it’s the logical part of your brain that allows you to look at a person and recognize her as your coworker, but it’s your emotions that allow you to decide that you don’t like her.

Emotions aren’t just a key factor in how the brain makes choices, they also heavily impact the way a given choice is perceived. When people experience positive emotions, they perceive the world in a more optimistic way. When they’re in a bad mood (negative emotions) they perceive everything they encounter more cynically. That much is clear to anybody who’s ever had a “bad day.”

But when we’re in a sour mood, it actually becomes more difficult for our brains to think creatively and make a choice–any choice–at all. Behavioral scientist Alice Isen has found that the emotions a person experiences dramatically shape how they view the world. Emotions are enormously powerful. A positive emotional state, she writes in the abstract to one 2001 paper, “enhances problem solving and decision making, leading to cognitive processing that is not only flexible, innovative, and creative, but also thorough and efficient.”

But emotions, of course, can be changed, and that has huge repercussions for how we make decisions. So if someone’s bad mood is holding them back from making astute decisions, the better approach is often trying to improve their emotional state, not win them over through reason. It isn’t always as simple as just cheering them up, though. Here are a few easy (and hopefully non-manipulative) ways to use positive emotions to encourage people to choose the way you’d like them to.

1. Inspire A Smile

One 2003 study confirmed smiles’ latent power: When you smile, you instinctively feel more energetic and positive. Researchers have found that smiling actually increases blood flow to the brain, which cools it and naturally produces feelings of pleasure.

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Another study found that when art dealers made a funny quip that won smiles from prospective buyers, it improved their moods so much that they agreed to a higher price than did buyers who hadn’t heard the joke.

Related: How To Add Humor To Your Presentations (In The Least Cringeworthy Way Possible)

2. Ask For Opinions

It might make you blush to think you can be so easily swayed, but the truth is that you’re more likely to say “yes” to someone if they simply ask your opinion first, according to one research study. When participants responded to questions that asked for their opinions, they felt better. These good feelings enhanced their emotional states and made them more amenable to the options they were presented with and asked to choose between.

So if you need to get someone to make a choice in your favor (a boss to sign off on that raise you’ve asked for, or a prospective client to agree to hire you), don’t just rush straight to the decision itself. Ask questions first that let them think through and share their opinions on whatever factors that choice may be based on. Yes, logic will come into play here, too, as they reason things through. But it will also help them feel more positive emotions and prepare them to choose the way you’re hoping they will.

3. Bring Up Something That Feels Good

Discussing topics that people associated with positive feelings causes them to experience those feelings firsthand. If you want to ask a friend for a favor, but you find that he’s in a bad mood, ask him about his most recent vacation–or any other topic bursting with positive emotions. The key is to let him focus on something first that improves his emotional state, which makes it more likely that he’ll be open to your request once you finally do bring it up.

None of this is especially complicated. But the truth is that we tend to underappreciate how powerful emotions can be when it comes to decision making. We often appeal to reason by default, then wind up disappointed when that fails to persuade. So before you pose a big question, use these simple tricks to prepare people to feel good about the choice they’re about to make. They’ll be more likely to choose in your favor–even if that isn’t entirely rational. After all, it can’t be.