The science of ethical persuasion: 6 key principles


Whatever our role in the workplace, be it a sales person, product development manager, marketer, customer support manager, accountant, HR, even CEO, much of our success at work will depend on our ability to influence and persuade others to say yes to our requests.

Whether we are seeking to sell more products and/or services, bring new products or services to the market place, influence company strategy, introduce new tools, change behaviors in the workforce, develop new techniques and ways of working, explore new markets, much of our success will depend on our ability to get others to say yes to what we are proposing.

How to persuade others and get to yes has often been considered as an art only accessible to a few who are gifted with a special ability to influence others.

This may indeed be the case that some people have special gifts and can intuitively influence and persuade others to say yes.

However, the good news according to Robert Cialdini, Professor in Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, is that persuading others is, in fact, a science based on 6 simple principles and these principles can be studied, learned and put to good use in a an ethical and honest way.

We no longer have to rely on gut feeling, hunches, intuition when we want to persuade others to say yes. We can learn and adopt effective persuasion strategies based on 6 clear principles.

Even more surprisingly, successful persuasion techniques based on these 6 principles allow us to make small and quite often costless changes to our persuasion strategies which can deliver quite significant results, allowing us to build positive, productive and long-term relationships with those around us, be they customers, colleagues, employees, friends, spouses, children, etc.

So what are these 6 principles?

Robert Cialdini defines them as follows:

1) Reciprocity: we are always more willing to say yes to someone who has already said yes to us. If someone invites us to a party or has done us a favor in the past, we feel obligated to reciprocate. Robert Cialdini gives the example of a restaurant where a small gift (a mint or a sweet) by the waiter increases the amount of the tip left by a customer. If we want to use this principle to influence others, we should be the first to give, we should personalize the gift and the gift should be unexpected. Simply put, we should give before we expect to receive.

2) Scarcity: People are more motivated by the idea of loosing something rather than the idea of gaining that same thing. Robert Cialdini mentions the case of the work he did with US Hi-Fi equipment manufacturer BOSE where by changing the marketing message from one which emphasized newness of the product to one which emphasized what the customer risked loosing if he/she didn’t opt for the new product, Bose increased the sales by 45%.

3) Authority: we are always more ready to follow the advice and say yes to people recognized as experts in their field. Doctors and dentists have long known this and usually post their diplomas in their consultancies to remind patients of the legitimacy of their expertise. Cialdini gives the example of how a real estate agency applied this principle to its business by instructing its receptionists to mention to callers the length of experience of its real estate agents before putting them through. This simple technique reinforced the confidence of callers and future customers and led to significant increases in business.

4) Consistency: a basic fundamental trait of human psychology is that we constantly seek to be consistent and congruent with our own personal values when we make decisions. This means that we seek to ensure that future decisions are congruent with previous commitments. So the challenge is to get people to make small commitments in writing if possible which will then lead them to make further commitments later on down the line on bigger issues.

5) Liking: we are more likely to say yes to people we like and Cialdini points out that there are three factors which lead us to like other people:
– We like people who are similar to us
– We tend to like people who pay us compliments
– We like people to seek to cooperate with us to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes

So when we are seeking to influence someone and get to yes, establishing a sincere and positive bond with the other person by bringing to the surface shared values, behaviors, experience, interests will help us build confidence and trust with the other person.

6) Consensus: when trying to persuade others, we don’t always have to rely on our own powers of persuasion but we can seek to demonstrate what similar others are doing. We are all indeed influenced by what our peer group are doing and how they are deciding. Especially in situations where there is uncertainty as to what to decide (how to vote, what product to choose, etc.), if we can show to someone that people similar to him/her have already said yes to our proposal, we increase our chances of getting to Yes. Cialdini gives the example of how Barack Obama’s team went about presenting the audience of their candidate’s supporters as being made up of all the spectrum of society (rich and poor, young and old, ethnically diverse, well-dressed, poorly dressed, etc.) and this strongly influenced indecisive voters to row in with their peer group and vote yes for Obama.

So how or why are these principles “ethical”?

As Robert Cialdini points out, when needing to persuade others, the difference between influencing others and manipulating others lies in genuinely looking at the situation for one or more of these principles that truly exist in that situation.

Do we genuinely have expertise on such a matter? If so, it is legitimate for us to want to bring this to the surface.
– Is there genuine consensus on a given option? If so, it is legitimate to want to bring such consensus to the surface.
– Is there genuine similarity? Do we really share something in common with the other person? If so, then it is legitimate to build on this similarity to build trust.

Cialdini calls this approach the detective’s approach as it involves investigating thoroughly the situation and bringing to the surface the principles that are real and appropriate to the situation or problem to be solved.

However, if you are not a legitimate expert and you mislead the other person by pretending to be something you are not, then this becomes manipulation. You may succeed the first time in fooling your customer but you won’t get away with it a second time. Robert Cialdini calls this the smuggler approach. Just like a smuggler, you import into the relationship illegitimate and false values and behaviors and such an approach is bound to fail as no long-term relationship can be based on deceit.

As Robert Cialdini points out, the most surprising thing about his research into the science of persuasion is that the most successful persuaders spend more time preparing how they will make their value proposition based on some or all of these 6 principles rather than on structuring what they will offer. The most effective persuaders act as gardeners and prepare the ground thoroughly using these 6 principles before they try to plant the seed!

Listen to Robert Cialdini to understand how you can put these principles to good use, be more persuasive and build more positive, rewarding and long-term relationships in an ethical way with customers, colleagues, employees, friends, family members and all those with whom you need to get to Yes!

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