Blog » Want to influence others? Stop being so rational!

Want to influence others? Stop being so rational!

Salespeople have known it for years.

People buy on emotion and then justify their decision with facts and logic. That’s why the best salespeople always lead with an emotional “hook” before presenting the facts and features about their product or service.

So why, as business leaders, do we usually get it bass-ackwards when trying to sell our ideas or initiatives to the people we need to make them happen?

The simple answer is that we cling to the misguided belief that humans are rational creatures. In doing so we lead with facts and figures, thinking that the beauty of our logic will be enough to persuade people to see our point of view.

Not so!

Ongoing discoveries in psychology and neuroscience increasingly support the notion that human reasoning is rife with emotion. In fact, our preexisting beliefs often have far more influence over our logical conclusions than facts or hard data. Turns out that despite our neocortex and higher level reasoning abilities, we’re not so rational after all. Especially when it comes to ideas or information that threatens our deeply held views of the world.

Scientists have also discovered that humans apply our fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators but to data itself! When we encounter ideas or information that contradict what we believe to be true, the brain perceives it as a threat and instantly shifts into fight-or-flight mode. We either reject the information out of hand (flight) or argue vociferously against it (fight).

This leads to two common behavioral phenomena. The confirmation bias, in which we give much greater credence to evidence and data that bolster our beliefs. And the disconfirmation bias, in which we vigorously dispute arguments, information, and points of view that contradict our own. It also helps to explain why some people continue to hold on to their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

The bottom line is that we all wear blinders in certain situations. If we want to persuade someone or get them to accept new evidence, we need to set the stage by appealing to emotion first, facts and logic second. The key is presenting the evidence in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive emotional reaction.

To influence others in this context:

Start by developing rapport.

Forget about doing a fact-based data dump and find something in common with the other person. This is especially true in situations where you expect defensiveness or strong resistance to your ideas. For example, “I know we have some differences about how to proceed, but we both want this project to succeed, right?”

Expose your thinking.

Instead of focusing solely on the “what” and “how,” explain the assumptions and thought processes that led to your current position. From time to time ask, “Is there anything I have missed or am looking at in a way that is different than you?” Or, “Can you see where I’m coming from?” This helps to build the emotional connection by demonstrating vulnerability on your part.

Explore the other person’s thinking.

Ask them to explain their assumptions and thought processes. What leads them to see the situation the way they do? What causes them to feel that way about the issue? Look for some point of agreement that can put you in a partnership rather than an adversarial relationship.

Play the bias card.

Appealing to biases — points or beliefs where you obviously agree — will enhance your credibility and make the person more open to exploring where you disagree. However, avoid emotionally charged issues such as sex, politics, and religion (what your mom and dad told you all those years was right!), as these highly volatile biases can quickly shut down a conversation.

Watch for fight-or-flight behavior.

If you notice any flight-or-fight behavior (pulling away, checking the PDA, raised voice), stop the meeting and work to reset the brain. Once the fight-or-flight instinct gets triggered, all higher-level thinking processes shut down. Take a quick break of 3 or 4 minutes and try again.

Save the data until after you make the emotional connection.

This doesn’t mean that facts and logic have no place in a persuasive argument. But regardless of how many spreadsheets you have or how logical your proposal, once the fight-or-flight instinct gets triggered no amount of logic or reasoning will convince the person to see your point of view.

Next time you have an idea or initiative to sell or others to influence, put on your sales hat. Lead with positive emotion and save the facts and logic until the end. According to modern science, it’s the only “logical’ approach!

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