Your success as a persuasive communicator depends on both your message and you as the messenger. Of those two, Aristotle told us that the most important is ethos, or how others perceive you. In effect, recipients of your message are asking three questions: do you have good will, good sense and good character?
So, as long as you are an honest, thoughtful and competent person who only has the best interests of others in mind when you’re trying to persuade them, selling and influencing others should be a breeze, right?
Unfortunately, Virginia, now that you’re grown up it’s time to break the news that there is no Santa Claus. Just because you think you have those qualities does not mean that you actually do (at least to the extent that you think), and even if you’re right there is no guarantee that others will see you in the same light. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who don’t have those qualities but are still effective persuaders, because they’ve convinced others that they do. As the old joke goes, sincerity is your best asset—and once you can fake that you’ve got it made.
Let me be clear: I am totally in favor of having good will, good sense, and good character, but just having them is not enough unless others see those qualities in you. And according to Heidi Grant Halvorson’s new book, No One Understands You and What to Do About It, the odds are that they don’t see you the way you see yourself. There are two reasons for this: The first is that people are not as good at decoding emotions and intentions as they think they are, and the second is that everyone makes snap judgments that are prone to error, and those first impressions can be very sticky.
So, what can you do about it? You first have to figure out how others see you, and then make changes as necessary to adjust their perceptions.
To figure out how others see you, there are several things you can do.
If you see the need to change, Halvorson provides three useful “lenses” through which others view you:
The Trust lens. The first determination that people make about you is whether they can feel secure around you: what are your intentions (warmth) and can you act on those intentions (competence)? Halvorson suggests that you can increase the perception of your warmth by smiling, listening and in general taking a more active interest in the other person. If you need to kick up your perceived competence, look at people more directly, have a more upright posture, and in general act more confidently.
The Power lens. Power relationships affect how people view others, but it’s generally one-way: people in a one-up position tend to have a skewed view of the less powerful because they seem them primarily in terms of their instrumentality, or their usefulness to themselves; if you’re on the lower end you may not even get noticed enough too favorably impress them unless you can show them what you can do for them. For more on this, here’s an article I wrote recently on Selling Upward.
The Ego lens. The downside of projecting competence is that it can be a threat to the other person’s self-esteem. You can guard against this by being more self-deprecating; not necessarily by toning down your expertise or accomplishments, but by being more open about other weaknesses that you might have. You can also look for ways to praise the other person‘s accomplishment or abilities—as long as it’s credible. Finally, you can stress commonalities between the two of you, so that your abilities reflect favorably on the in-group to which you both belong.
No One Understands You is a good read, especially if you are new to these topics. However, the trust lens is the most powerful and the most practical of the three lenses, and there’s a lot more to it than is covered in this book. For more depth, I would suggest picking up two books: Compelling People and The Trusted Advisor.