Psychological Aspects of Persuasion


Psychological Aspects of Persuasion

  • By Ian Bradley
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So many of our actions involve persuasion, be it bargaining for new house, convincing a voter, or more frequently, in my game, getting someone to change. Persuasion is simply a ubiquitous part of human nature.


“All governments –indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act – is founded on compromise. ….” Edmund Burke exhorting the House of Commons to negotiate with the upstart American colonials.


Despite our need to convince or persuade others, we often fail.  We fail because you don’t understand the needs of the other person, or we poison the atmosphere with arguments.  Psychology can teach us a better way by opening a dialogue of discussion. Here are ten tips.



#1 Importance of listening.  Listening allows many things including the ability to gain the perspective of the other side.  This means, you understand what the other side might lose, or perceive to lose, if they agreed with you.  Therefore, take the time to find out as much information about the other person, their perspective and needs. Also, following Bayesian principles listen to understand the “priors” of the other person before you provide new information.


The above point was recently elaborated by top crisis negotiator, Christopher Voss:

You want the other person to get a hit of oxytocin. You’re going to get that by getting them to say: “That’s right.” You do this by listening and then really summarizing their perspective for them. You especially want to focus on articulating any negative thoughts they have. Don’t dispute or deny them. When the word “but” comes out of your mouth you are denying and it is time to shut up.

Once you’ve articulated their perspective for them, they feel understood. And a person who feels understood is getting a feel-good wave of chemicals in their brain. The one you are really going for is oxytocin, the bonding chemical. Once they get a hit of oxytocin, everything is going to change. They’ll feel bonded to you. And if they feel bonded and, that’s to your advantage.



#2 How to Start:  One effective way to begin a persuading conversation is to articulate the negative thoughts that the other person might harbour about you or the situation. For example, if you’ve had an argument with someone, what do you know for sure? They probably think you’re a jerk. So, express the unsaid:


 “Right now, you probably think I’m a jerk.”

If you ‘re a conversative trying to persuade a liberal, then “you probably think that I don’t believe in climate change.”  If you a liberal trying to change a consersative, you might begin by:


“you probably think that I love deficits..”

This has to do with the emotional wiring in our brain. Brain science shows that every time you identify a negative emotion, that negative feeling diminishes. So, if negativity is an obstacle, and just calling it out reduces it, this accelerates the process of defusing the tension. Then from there you can talk.



#3 Importance of going slowly, don’t rush the persuasion

Go slowly, use pauses and gaps to allow the other side to join in thus forming a common process.  Slowing things down allows one to bring in extra detail using phrases such as:


“I don’t want to give an answer that appears glib, so I’ll have to think about…”

“I’m more into listening at this stage…”

“If I told you now, then we’d both know what I was planning and thinking about,



#4 Tell a story.  If you’re trying to persuade someone on the other side of that chasm, UC Berkeley political scientist David Broockman says that chances are, you’re going about it the wrong way. In a series of studies over the past five years, he has found insights that contradict much of what we think we know about engaging those who disagree with us.


When it comes to changing someone’s feelings about issues, he says, data are less compelling than human stories.  Therefore, tell a story about why you have come to believe in whatever it is that you want to persuade the other person to believe in.



#5 Create a process to resolve a conflict and get people involved in that process.  In the process of negotiating for a car involves a series of closer approximations on both sides to the final price, people are reluctant to walk away from something where they have invested and achieved a compromise

Investing in the process in persuasive communication occurs when both sides participate in the solution or the creative process.  Here’s an illustration from the I/O psychologist Adam Grant:


In a study of Hollywood screenwriters, those who pitched fully formed concepts to studio executives right out of the gate struggled to get their ideas accepted. Successful screenwriters, by contrast, understood that Hollywood executives like to shape stories. Those writers treated the pitch more like a game of catch, tossing an idea over to the suits, who would build on it and throw it back.



#6 Keep It Light and ask questions  You never want to let negotiations become too tense. Always feel free to smile and inject some humor in the conversation. Lightening up the mood can ingratiate you with your opponent while also conveying your negotiating strength. If you do not appear to be taking the negotiation extremely seriously, your opponent may conclude that you are ready to move on if you don’t get the price you want.


We often find ourselves trying to convince e someone who is overconfident, frequently people don’t know what they don’t know. If you call out their lack of knowledge directly, they will get defensive. A better approach is to let them recognize the gaps in their own understanding by asking questions.


In a series of experiments,  psychologists asked Yale students to rate their knowledge of how everyday objects, such as televisions and toilets, work. The students were supremely confident in their knowledge—until they were asked to write out their explanations step-by-step. As they struggled to articulate how a TV transmits a picture and a toilet flushes, their overconfidence melted away. They suddenly realized how little they understood.



#7 Add a dash of praise. Not all displays of respect are equally effective, though. It doesn’t help to bury criticism between two compliments: the feedback sandwich doesn’t taste as good as it looks. Beginnings and ends are more likely to stick in our memories than middles, and narcissists are especially likely to ignore the criticism altogether.

The key is to praise people in an area different from the one in which you hope to change their minds. If you’re trying to get someone to rethink a bad choice, it’s a mistake to say you admire his or her decision-making skills; you’re better offcommending her creativity. We all have multiple identities, and when we feel secure about one of our strengths, we become more open to accepting our shortcomings elsewhere.



#8 The Illusion of Freedom;  In “Leave Room for Refusal” Nir Eyal states that one of the best ways to get people to say “yes” is to remind them that they’re free to say “no.”  By affirming that you can refuse my request, I’m giving you control, so you don’t have to wrest it back.


In one notable experiment, people were presented with one of two requests: to fill out a survey, or to lend their cell phone to a stranger for a phone call. In both cases, people were significantly more likely to comply with the request when it came with the caveat that they were “free to say no.” (Listen for this trick next time you’re talking to a salesperson — it’s standard practice.)


You can adapt this tactic by giving yourself options. For example, if your goal is to exercise at a certain time, give yourself the choice to “refuse.” Maybe you can choose between a bike ride, swimming, or lifting weights. When you put that event on your calendar, you can write something like, “Bike ride (but can swim or lift weights instead.”



#9 Name the enemy.  One of the most powerful ways to turn prospects into clients or people into supporters is to pit them against an antagonist.

In the world of sales, naming your customer’s enemy differentiates you — not directly in relation to competitors (which comes off as “salesy”), but in relation to the values that your competitors represent. In politics, naming common enemies like “inflation,” or “unemployment” can be used to effectively build bridges to the undecided.


#10 How to end. Here is the critical game-changing move: Remember that the last impression is the lasting impression. If you are struggling to get the last word in, that’s when the last word is a cheap shot. But when your last word is something positive, it seeds the possibility that the other person will think about what you said and come back and propose a resolution.



As a last tip, don’t believe in a fixed pie theory that there has to be a winner and therefore a loser; in reality, there can be two winners.  Illustrated by the two sisters and one orange; problem where one sister wants to make juice and the other the peel for a pie.


Throughout the negotiation, try to determine what you believe to be an acceptable outcome for the other party. It may be a combination of different things that aren’t necessarily tied solely to price. An integrative negotiation strategy looks at negotiations as a potential win-win scenario in which each side gets to share some part of the value on the table. Further, this mindset sees relationships and building relationships with your counterparts as integral to process. Integrative negotiators will employ negotiation tactics aimed at creating value and bridging the gap between the parties.