The Wrong Choice People Make When Trying to Persuade


It’s hard to persuade someone to think or do something they are not inclined to do. People often don’t have the need-to, want-to, can-do or will-do attitude to change. Whether or not we’re successful in the attempt usually comes down to a single important decision we make about how we will go about persuading the person.

And most of the time, we make the wrong choice.

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Here’s an example.

Last week, a director at a technology company told me about a problem she was having with one of her managers: Although he is highly competent, hardworking and motivated, he’s too tactical and reactive. She needs this manager to be more self-directed and take more initiative so she can focus on other areas.

None of the coaching she had provided so far seemed to be making a difference. This is how it would go:

“John, you do great work and I appreciate your attitude. It’s important for you to take more initiative rather than reacting to requests. That will position you as a more strategic leader in the company, and it will help me to focus on other priorities. Are you open to that?”

“Yes. What should I be taking more initiative in?”

“Well, for example, we need to survey our users to see who’s using XBRL.”

“Ok, good point. I can work on that.”

And just like that, they’re back to the manager doing what he’s told rather than taking initiative.

So I suggested, “Rather than ‘telling’ your manager, what would happen if you tried asking questions to get him to tell you why it’s important for him to change and what he needs to do differently to make the change?”

She tried it:

“John, you do great work and I appreciate your attitude. What would it mean for you if you were perceived as taking more initiative rather than just responding to requests?”

“I think people would view me as more of a leader and it would free you up for higher level work.”

“What do you need to do differently each week to make that happen?”

“I could block time each week to create or update a list of potential initiatives, with rationale and suggested priority for each. Then I could email it to you in case you want to make suggestions.”

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To tell or to ask.

It’s the most important decision we make when trying to persuade. And the best influencers intentionally and constantly consider that decision.

In the vast majority of cases, asking is better than telling.

Because no one wants to be told. And when we ask, the person who is changing owns that change.

What do you think? Have you tried asking instead of telling?

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