A Skill Displayed at Birth

Our daughter Abigail turned 23 years old this month. It’s hard to believe because I still remember standing at her crib thinking, “I can’t believe you’ve been with us for 100 days.” And here we are more than 8,300 days later! As I reflected on her birth it occurred to me that persuasion is a skill we all display as soon as we exit the womb.

What’s the first thing babies do when they enter the world? They cry. They do so because they can’t express their needs any other way. They cry when they want to be fed, burped, held, changed or any number of other things. They feel their needs and seek to get those needs met through other people.

Aristotle said persuasion was the art of getting someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do if you didn’t ask. That’s a great definition for us as we learn to speak but babies don’t come into the world with any language. Despite lacking verbal skills, they keep trying to influence people.

As we grow we begin to learn other ways besides crying to get our needs met. Some of those learned methods are more socially acceptable than others. A short list of acceptable behaviors includes:

  • Offering help in exchange for help.
  • Saying please and thank you.
  • Asking instead of demanding.

As children grow some socially unacceptable behaviors many also manifest themselves. Those might include:

  • Throwing tantrums
  • Threats
  • Physical harm

Here’s the reality when it comes to behavior – what is reinforced will be repeated. If parents, teachers, friends or others reinforce unacceptable behaviors a child will keep going back to those behaviors for one reason and one reason only – those behaviors get the child what they want.

That approach shouldn’t surprise you. Getting what they want, no matter how it happens, may seem like a great strategy to kids in the short-term. However, it’s a poor long-term strategy for the vast majority as they grow into adults because no one wants to be around adults who throw tantrums, issue threats or resort to violence to get what they want.

This is where understanding the principles of persuasion becomes so important. The principles of reciprocity, liking, consensus, authority, consistency, scarcity and unity are hard wired into our brains. Each has its roots in our development and survival as a species and that’s why humans have come to rely on them more often than not. In one sense they are a force of nature.

Think of the principles of persuasion this way – they help people process information more efficiently which makes communication easier. The easier it is to process information the more likely it will be that it’s acted on.

If you’re not getting what you want, or feel your current approach is taking a toll on your relationships, then maybe you should consider a change and take time to study human behavior. After all, it’s easier to swim with the waves and run with the wind than it is going against those forces of nature.


Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. His Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed 150,000 times! The course will teach you how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process. Not watched it yet? Click here to see what you’ve been missing.


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