Tips on how to influence others in conversations and make a change
“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get them across, your ideas won't get you anywhere.”
- Lee Iacocca (American automobile executive)
We all affect others. We must, as no human is an island and we all have social interactions. And in a way we all want to guide and influence the people surrounding us in our everyday lives; be it as doctors that motivate their patients to a healthy lifestyle, teachers that want their students to reach their greatest potential, businessmen that advice their clients, advocates that want to reach politicians with their ideas and visions, etc. But on a much smaller, yet important level, we also want to reach our friends, family and peers. However, we often fail to get through to our counterparts with our ideas and perspectives and are frustrated when we stand in front of closed doors.
You all probably know that mix of feelings – anger, disbelief, helplessness – when a conversation has not occurred how you imagined it or wished it. You start to blame your counterpart for their ignorance, misunderstanding, disrespect or similar. We do this automatically where we should actually just stop for a second when we once again get overwhelmed by this merry-go-round of feelings and ask ourselves if we are not the ones to blame. We should not ask ourselves the questions: Why does he not get my point? Why does he not want to listen to me? Why doesn’t the data that I present him with change his mind? We should rather ask ourselves: Why didn’t I get my point over? Why does he not understand what I am saying? What could I have done to convince him of my ideas and motivate him to change or take action?
The reason why we often fail to reach our counterparts in discussions, debates and arguments - be it on a private or professional, small-scale or large-scale, virtual or direct level - is because we fall back on suboptimal habits when arguing and trying to change people’s ideas and habits. We generally operate by instinct … and these are sadly for the most part not compatible with how the psychology of the brain works, making our conversations highly ineffective.
But don’t worry: “Communication is a skill that you can learn. It's like riding a bicycle or typing. If you're willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” – Brian Tracy (Canadian-American motivational public speaker and self-development author).
Below I have tried to shortly summarize the most important things that you should keep in mind when you are talking or discussing with people and you are trying to convince them of your ideas. These insights are a collection of personal experience, information received from different communication and leadership courses, as well as articles and books on the topic of communication. The following points are not fully composed with all of the scientific background … but they should trigger thinking and further research into the topic.
Use data with caution
In school we are all taught, that if we have an argument we should underline it with data. But is this really that effective? The same data can have totally different effects on different people and populations. Data that does not fit people’s mindset will make them suspicious about its credibility while data that fits their mindset will be used to further intensify their ideas. The efficiency of the data is therefore more dependent on the person than about the data itself. I am not saying that you should use no data to support your arguments … what I am saying is that you should use it with caution and that you must separate yourself from the conception that it has the power to change people’s attitudes. (Other methods and skills are much more important … more on that below). In addition to that when using data make it visual and tangible. Make sure that people really understand it and are aware of the magnitude.
I know that it is hard to not get worked up emotionally when a discussion does not go the way we have imagined it or we are finding us in a tense and difficult conversation – the perceived disagreement or lacking motivation triggers feels like a personal attack. But this is not the right frame of mind when we want to solve a conflict efficiently or change our counterpart.
When a topic is important to you, you are probably mostly very excited and determined to convince people about it. Emotions are involved. This is totally normal and good but when we want to really reach others we have to have some degree of emotional intelligence so that we use these emotions efficiently in the way to move people. Psychologist Heather Uczynski said, "Emotional intelligence (EQ as opposed to IQ) is often more important in the workplace than job knowledge or expertise because it has to do with getting along with other people," Emotional intelligence encompasses three important aspects: self-awareness, self-control and empathy. The most important thing is that you and your audience start on common ground; that you have the same emotional state. It is useless to start arguing dedicatedly when your counterpart is currently very angry or bored. You will simply talk past each other.
When you are planning a conversation or to present an idea then research who your counterpart or your audience will be. I am not suggesting that you should stalk anyone, but find know what background knowledge they have, what age they are, what cultural and socioeconomic background they have. In your preparation do not think about yourself and what would be persuasive and desirable for you. Rather think about what would persuade your audience, what moves and motivates them, as this might alter greatly from yours. Trim your arguments to those factors and make decent references to them.
If you want to really get across ideas then simple words are usually not enough. Words are wind. Impress your counterparts by a creative treatment of the topic. Use other methods like pictures, move clips, diagrams to highlight your points. Use personal stories, examples, anecdotes, paintings, songs. Or why not offer your audience or counterpart an unforgettable experience? In the end actions speak louder than words.
If you want to control a conversation then give your counterpart the feeling of control. Sounds paradox I know, but it works. Instead of imposing ideas and comportment on someone try giving them options from which they can chose. We humans like being independent and free to decide. when someone seems to steel us this right we simply shut off. So give people a feeling of power. Chose suggestions over demands.
Prevent criticising or blaming people.
And the most important thing: listen to your counterpart also if you do not fully agree with them. At the end of the day also a broken clock is right twice a day. Contradicting ideas should be seen as a potential not as a burden that should be avoided. Value your counterparts’ insights and give them the feeling that you do so. When you are having a conversation, then do it eye-to-eye and be open to their ideas and stories. Be open to let your own perceptions to be changed and be open to compromises. And when it is the case then don’t shy away from acknowledging your own mistakes or misconceptions.
Prevent using urgency and dramatic calls to action.
Dramatic presentation of a situation and calls to action generate feelings of fear and helplessness in most people. It leads to reactance – it freezes people so that they do nothing at all or even the opposite of that what you wanted to attain. Rather try using positive messages; things that have gone well in the past, improvements or even express praise. This motivates people to think and maybe even act differently.
We have to trim every conversation and argument to our audience and have to use the right tools to effectively convey our ideas and perspectives in order to reach our counterparts and stimulate understanding, will to change or motivate to take action. As Tony Robbins (American author, entrepreneur, philanthropist and life coach) has put it quite nicely. “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”
I do not want to claim that you will win arguments and conversations when sticking to these tips. But they are a good start to make your arguments and communication skills stronger and more effective. You will always have people that you will not be able to reach whatever you do, and you will also sometimes experience rejection. And that is okay because you cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Don’t let these “failures” stop you and keep approaching people, talk to them, ask them questions and truly convince them of your ideas and visions – if you snooze you lose.