Persuasion and listening are funny things. I was on vacation in Ocean City, MD one summer with my wife and a few friends long before I lived at the beach. We were golfing along the shore at a course called Eagle’s Landing—a pretty tough little public course. It was hot and humid. I was hitting the ball pretty well, but my wife wasn’t having a stellar day. The temperature, course conditions, and cart path only rule were getting to her, and I had a feeling that I’d better clear out or risk her wrath. I’d been down the road before of offering advice on her game, even when solicited, and didn’t want to get caught in that quagmire again. It goes something like this:
“Karl, what am I doing wrong? I can’t get off the tee?!”
Having not read John Gray’s book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus yet, I thought this was a straight question which begged for an answer.
“Try slowing your backswing down a little bit and keeping your head down when you swing and—“
“For God’s sake! Forget it! Can’t you do anything but criticize me? Like you never make any mistakes.”
A few holes later, a total stranger who is playing with my wife and I will be asked the same question, and reply…
“Well, I think if you slowed your back-swing down a tad and keep your head from moving during the shot, focused on the ball, you’ll do better.”
“Thanks, Mr. Total Stranger. That’s sound advice that I’m sure will help. You’re one of the good guys of this world.”
I hurl a five iron into the woods after I pick my jaw up off of the ground.
How many guys reading this article have had a similar experience? What about the ladies? Ever try to help your husband or boyfriend with driving directions, or, Good God, to use a power tool?! If you got a like reaction, here’s what happened. The message sent out is filtered through the perceptions of the listener of who you are. We hear a lot in the speaking profession of how much influence your looks, body language, and voice tone affect the message you send. We don’t here as much about the credibility of the speaker in the mind of the audience, but it plays a huge factor. You see, most spouses like to think of themselves as equals–at least–to their partners. This makes it very difficult on one’s ego to take advice from a spouse, because you’re supposed to know as much as she does. Now it’s not as bad as it sounds. This “receptor bias” is generally reserved to certain areas where we think we know more than our mates. I could no more tell my wife what interior decorating ideas work in our home than she could correct me on sports statistics. I am very receptive to ideas from her in certain areas; others go in one ear and out the other, needing verification from a higher authority.
So why am I telling you this? Because this happens all the time in business too. We’ll take advice from those we think have credibility that matches or exceeds our own, and generally ignore it from people who aren’t in our perceived intellectual class. When I consult with companies, guess where I get most of my ideas to improve the business? That’s right—the front line employees! Management has heard a lot of these ideas before, but didn’t listen because they came from lower tier employees. Now that they come from a paid “expert”, the concepts are suddenly good. Let me take some credit here. There is a talent to persuading people to your ideas that takes a while to learn. That’s what this article is about. Let’s talk about the three common business channels of persuasion that affect how we communicate at work.
This is the easiest channel of persuasion. Subordinates expect you to have the answers, and if not, most will listen to you because you may directly or indirectly influence their paychecks. The methods you use to speak to subordinates may vary. Your job is to concentrate on treating a subordinate employee with respect so that they will listen to the message you’re sending. If you’re condescending or rude, the listener will probably turn off and be spiteful, often impeding progress intentionally under the guise of not understanding what you meant. To get to the next level of action, you must stress the importance of your message to subordinates. They may have seen years of edicts roll down the line at your company that went away after a while. Theses types will be tempted to wait it out until your initiative dies a slow death. Repetition is the mother of skill, so if you want action, hammer home the message with a high frequency.
Now things get a little hairier. Much like the marriage situation I described earlier, equals will let their egos get in the way of sound advice and ideas. If you’re the expert in your company in a specific discipline, you’ll have no problem offering forth ideas in that area. However, if we believe the business books at the airport by guys named Drucker, Peters, and Blanchard, we know that many of the best ideas come from outside the box of anointed intelligencia. The difficult thing is getting the ideas heard.
When dealing with equals and trying to persuade them to your point of view, here are a couple of starter phrases that may help…
- “I don’t know much about this, but would it make sense to…”
- “How do you think it would work if we did…”
- “You’re the expert, but what do you think of…”
Get the idea? Stroke the listener, show personal humility, and include him in the idea by asking his opinion on the idea. Now he can add to the idea, perfect it, be a part of the solution. Most importantly, he will support your concept, and that’s what you really wanted anyway, isn’t it?
Notice how, just like a good salesperson, you’re offering ideas in the form of a question. Don’t just dictate your ideas as a bold statement. Getting the listeners input leads to getting their buy-in.
Now here’s a special case in the Equals channel of persuasion—perceived equals. A common example here is where a promotion puts a person in charge of former peers. If you’re the new sheriff in town, don’t be too quick to pull your pistol. You’ll get more support if you initially treat the rest of the gang with the methods outlined above.
Here’s the hardest channel of persuasion, to influence the boss. If you’re not careful here, you’ll find that your ideas will fall on deaf ears and soon you may become as frustrated as the shop floor guys I talked about earlier. Just as when dealing with equals, you need to show appropriate humility when speaking to your superiors, but here’s an extra tip. Couch your idea as a way to make the boss look good, either in the eyes of her supervisor or to her employees. Whatever level you’re at in a company, most supervisors have some responsibility for budget and employee performance, so keep these openings in mind…
- “I’ve got an idea that I think will cut our departmental expenses by ten percent. What do you think if…”
- “How would you feel if we could improve our team throughput in less time? Here’s the idea…”
Any superior would have to be an idiot to not listen attentively when approached like that.
Boys and girls, the moral to the story is simple. Your goal is to communicate and persuade as effectively as you can to all levels of your organization. It will improve your status, your impact, and your income. The greatest improvement ideas in the world are meaningless if they’re left on the cutting room floor of your company. If you’re not at a level with built in credibility, you must learn to communicate through the channels of persuasion that concentrate on what’s in it for your listener. Your ideas can then have the impact that they deserve. Someday, maybe I’ll be able to help my wife with her short game and she’ll be able to keep me from getting lost on the highway.