What’s Your Goal?

I work with lots of people in different roles when it comes to teaching ethical influence. Over the years I’ve worked with senior leaders, middle managers, supervisors, claim reps, underwriters, field sales reps, insurance agents, business owners, financial reps and many others. I’m always amazed at how often people try to persuade without a clear goal in mind.

You may think a salesperson always has a clear goal; i.e., to make the sale. True enough, but that’s still a little vague in my book. Let me share an example to help you see what I mean.

During the Principles of Persuasion Workshop© we have an activity where participants work in teams to come up with a persuasive argument to get a high school student, Jimmy, back in school after he’s been expelled for foul language and insubordination. Participants generally do a good job at applying the principles of influence to persuade the school board to let Jimmy back in but very few clearly state when they want Jimmy back in school. That leaves the final decision up to the school board, which could opt for another week or two out of school.

Participants would do much better to say something like this at the conclusion, “It’s our sincere hope that you’ll let Jimmy back in school tomorrow.” Why is this so important? Because if the board says no there is a moment of power the teams can leverage.

Studies show when someone says “No” to you, if you make a concession and ask for a smaller request immediately your odds of hearing “Yes” are much better. This is an application of the principle of reciprocity because when we give a little, people often feel compelled to give a little in return.

Robert Cialdini had his research assistants run an experiment that shows how powerful this concept can be in real life.  These students randomly asked people around the Arizona State University campus if they would be willing to be a chaperone on a day trip to the zoo for a group of juvenile delinquents. As you might expect, very few people wanted to spend a day at the zoo with those kids so only 17% said they would be willing to help.

At a later date the research assistants roamed the campus and started with a bigger initial request. They randomly asked people if they would be willing to be a big brother or sister to some juvenile delinquents. They made sure people knew this was a weekly commitment of two hours and they were looking for people to sign up for two years. No one was willing to give up that much time. As soon as people said no the research assistants would ask, “If you can’t do that, would be willing to be a chaperone on a day trip to the zoo for a group of juvenile delinquents?” So basically they were asking for the exact some thing they’d asked for earlier but this time 50% said yes – triple the initial response rate!

Two things were at play during the second scenario. First, the contrast phenomenon came into play. By comparison, a day at the zoo is nothing compared to a two-year commitment so it’s much easier to say yes to the zoo after thinking about being a big brother/sister. The second thing was the principle of reciprocity was engaged by way of concessions. When the research assistants counter-offered immediately, many people felt compelled to do the same.

Let’s go back to the scenario with Jimmy. By clearly stating what the team wants – to have Jimmy back in school tomorrow – they will be more effective persuaders. They might hear a “Yes” to the initial request but if they don’t they can make a counter offer that’s very likely to be accepted. This is a far better approach than leaving the timing up to the board.

How does this work for you? Two ways.

  • Clearly state what you want. Think about the times when you’ve not clearly stated what you wanted and left if to someone else to decide the outcome. Perhaps you interviewed for a job but didn’t clearly state the salary or benefits you wanted. Or maybe you were trying to make a sale but didn’t make the first offer.
  • Don’t censure yourself. For example, you want a job and would like to earn $95,000 but inside you’re thinking they might say no so you ask for $85,000. If you hear no then you might end up at $80,000 or less. Ask for $95,000 because you might just get it but if not you can retreat to $90,000 and are more likely to get that than if you’d started at $90,000 or $85,000.

Next time you go into a situation where you’re trying to persuade someone don’t just focus on building your persuasive communication. Give lots of thought to what your ultimate goal is. What would you like to have happen if everything worked out as you wanted? But don’t stop there; clearly communicate your desired outcome. Be ready in case you hear “no,” which means having multiple fallback positions ready. This allows you to leverage the moment of power after “no.” Do these few things and you’re on your way to becoming a much more effective persuader.

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  1. […] lose.” No matter how good a salesperson you are people will say no to you. However, if you come in with a second proposal immediately you’re very likely to hear yes because you’re seen as a reasonable, somewhat giving person. […]

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