One of the most important steps in any persuasion attempt is to first clarify in your own mind exactly what you want from the other person. This will allow you to improve your approach and help you gauge the effectiveness of your efforts.
Persuasion is about getting agreement from another person, but it’s not as simple as a yes or no question. There are different degrees of agreement, and by being clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, you can better tailor your approach. This will help you dial down your persuasive efforts in some cases, or crank it up in others.
Using this approach, you first gauge where the audience is, then you think about what degree of agreement you need in the strategic context of your persuasion campaign, then you choose your message and approach accordingly.
First, we need to have a common terminology for the various degrees of agreement. I’m using terminology that Terry Bacon uses in his book, Elements of Influence, with one slight modification. As he says, there is a range of possible attitudes that the other person may have toward your proposal or idea.
The baseline is neutrality, and this is the one term that I have changed from his scale, in which he calls it apathy. I use neutrality because people can be indifferent or neutral for one of three reasons, apathy, ignorance or indecision. Apathy is one of those reasons: they know about the issue but don’t care about the outcome or decision. The second reason might be ignorance: they are not aware of the issue. The third is indecision: they know and care about the issue but don’t know which course of action is the best. If you want to move them from neutrality, you must know the reason they are neutral. You must either inform them, show them why they should care, or make the case for your solution to the issue.
The “negative” attitudes as they relate to your proposal are:
Skepticism: they don’t support your idea but are not necessarily resisting. Maybe they don’t trust you or haven’t heard enough to make them feel comfortable with the idea.
Resistance: in this case they are actively pulling back from your idea, perhaps seeing disadvantages for themselves favoring a different approach .
Rebellion: besides resisting your idea, the other person is taking an active role in fighting against the idea, either promoting another idea or trying to enlist others on their side as well.
The “positive” attitudes are:
Compliance: the other person goes along with your idea. They may say yes, or agree not to block your efforts.
Commitment: the other person personally commits to seeing that the idea gets implemented. They take an emotional and personal interest in the idea and become enthusiastically committed to it. This is the difference between following the letter of your request and promoting the spirit as well.
Leadership: others make the idea their own and take an active leadership role in promoting and extending it.
Why does it matter?
Being clear about the type of agreement you want will help you improve your assessment, targeting, and persuasive approach.
Assessment is important because you need to know where people are in their attitudes before you begin your persuasion effort. It’s extremely unlikely that you will move someone from rebellion to commitment in one meeting or presentation, for example. You may need to move one stage at a time. You’ll have to be patient. Snap decisions do not lead to lasting commitments. Some salespeople get impatient and begin pushing for agreement, which sometimes works—unless the buyer has a chance to change her mind.
In addition, the process of figuring out their attitudes is going to give you insights into their thinking that can improve your arguments and appeals. That’s why it should be an integral part of your audience analysis.
With persuasion, just as in so many other activities, a clear target improves your aim. You want to aim specifically for the level of agreement that you need, because there are dangers in overshooting or undershooting your target. Sometimes, for example, a speaker who is passionate about a topic might only need compliance, so that others will not stand in their way. Yet they may try too hard to inspire their audience to the same level of commitment, and either talk past the close or turn them off with their “excessive” passion.
On the other hand, it’s even more common for someone to get compliance and think they have achieved commitment. The audience members may be agreeable but that is no guarantee that they will actually do anything about it afterwards. There’s a big difference between compliance and commitment. Anyone trying to implement a new sales process, for example, knows that agreement is not that hard, but ensuring that account managers will embrace it and make it a habit is a much tougher task.
Different targets require different approaches. For example, compliance can generally be won through logical and rational reasons. Commitment and leadership usually require an emotional component as well.
In writing this article, I aimed for compliance. Whether you commit to try this is up to you. I assumed that my readers are in neutral, either through ignorance or apathy, and that’s why I’ve tried to inform you and tell you why you should care.