The capacity to persuade—to capture the audience, convince the undecided, convert the opposition—has always been a prized and winning skill. But, thanks to relatively recent developments, it is no longer only an elusive art.
For most of us, this is welcome news. After all, one problem with an art form is that only artists can truly manage it. But, what about the rest of us? Must we resign ourselves to fumbling away open opportunities to move others in our direction because we so frequently fail to say the right thing or, worse, say the right thing at the wrong time? Fortunately, no.
There is now a substantial body of systematic, scientifically-grounded research into how people can be moved to agree with a request. For the most part, this research is conducted—and its implications taught—in universities, within departments of social psychology, communication, and marketing. It is worth noting that the persuasive practices covered in this work rarely concern the merits of the request itself. Instead, they concern the ways in which the merits are presented.
There is no question that having a strong case is crucial to success. But having a worthy argument or set of arguments is not enough, because other worthy (yet competing) arguments are likely to exist as well. So, although making a good case is important, it’s the person who can make a good case well who will gain the lion’s share of assent. For optimal persuasive effect, then, one’s focus should be on the ways to communicate one’s case in the most effective manner.
One aspect of all this appears especially relevant to the course of 21st century life. Because of a variety of factors that have emerged in commercial, educational, and social contexts (e.g., matrix-based organizational structures, egalitarian empowerment practices, globalization), command-and-control approaches to producing change are rapidly becoming outmoded. Increasingly in work settings, for example, individuals come together on a project from different arenas within the same organization. The heterogeneous makeup of these teams makes unclear who is in charge of whom. Similarly, members of one organization often partner with those of different, cooperating organizations on joint projects. Here, again, issues of line authority are inapplicable or obscured. Finally, savvy managers, educators, and government officials have always recognized the morale costs of playing the “Because-I’m-the-Boss” card. In each of these instances, where reliance on hierarchical lines of command seems inappropriate, impractical, or imprudent, some other form of influence is preferred. That is why a thoroughgoing knowledge of the process of persuasion can be so valuable. Persuasion moves people by means that don’t depend on formal power structures. Quite simply, it can provide influence without authority.
However, there is an important qualification to keep in mind for anyone who wishes to study scientifically-proven principles of persuasion. Only through their ethical deployment can the principles bring about effective and enduring change. Only in this fashion can successful persuasion reach into the future to enhance a continuingly advantageous partnership among those involved.
Robert B. Cialdini
Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing
Arizona State University
Copyright – Robert B. Cialdini