“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.” —Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
While I doubt challenging workplace conversations served as inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ famous song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the words have a ring of truth for what we encounter in the office.
Rare is the manager who has too many people or too large a budget for the tasks ahead. Mostly, the work of managing is learning to do a lot with a little and then doing just a bit more with less. However, some individuals manage to break out of this mold and secure the resources needed to build and prosper. These individuals invariably (and often unknowingly) are masters of the principles of positive persuasion.
My goal in this latest of my challenging conversations articles is to help you alter those glum sounding lyrics into something less melodic but more motivating. For example, “I almost always get what I want, and I definitely get what I need,” offers more positivity with a hint of boldness. (OK, my wife said it sounded arrogant, but I’m pretty confident in the power of the tools of positive persuasion.) However, to live up to those lofty claims, you must travel to the world where brain science intersects workplace conversations.
Why Positive Persuasion?
I view every workplace request for help, resources, money, time, and equipment as a negotiation. And like any negotiation, you have to choose an approach ranging from win-win to I win-you lose.
If an apple pie were involved here, principled negotiators strive for positive outcomes for all. They are striving to split the apple pie in half or, ideally, find a way to make the pie bigger for everyone. The other camp wants to keep you from eating apple pie. My counsel for workplace negotiations (where you have to live and prosper together) is to strive to expand the pie and help everyone—especially the overall organization—benefit in the process.
So, remember my aggressive sounding twist on the Stones’ famous lyrics? While I want you to get what you want and need regarding resources, I don’t want you to keep others from eating. In fact, if you do this right, your positive approach to persuading others will make it easier to gain further help in the future.
Note: I am mostly focusing on one-on-one type requests. In organizations where battles rage between units for budgets and dominance and even survival, one must remain principled, not naïve.
11 Core Principles
In my programs on challenging conversations, I’m quick to suggest my use of the term “principles” is a bit liberal. Consider these as approaches or tactics if that helps you. Regardless of the label, these are powerful tools when wielded correctly.
1. Positive outcomes for all parties.
Every request you make requires someone to do something. While asserting power or calling on the greater good of the organization might work for awhile, there’s a difference between grudging compliance and active support. Operate with the goal in mind of helping create positive outcomes for everyone involved, and you improve your odds of gaining an ally along with sustained support over time.
2. Data and logic don’t sway; emotions win the day.
You can argue on the side of data until you’ve exhausted all of the oxygen in the room. However, people make decisions to help others or to change their minds based on emotions. We’re wired this way. Know your stuff. Bring data to back your perspectives, but lead with data and you’ll struggle to gain support.
3. Arguing builds resistance.
The harder you push, the more you cement someone’s view of a situation. The harder you pull, the more resistance you encounter. While arguing over direction and resources is considered sport in some organizations, it is ineffective at best. This issue is fatal to gaining cooperation and totally within your power to change.
4. Interests over positions.
Speaking of arguing, if you listen carefully, mostly people argue over positions and fail to uncover interests. They focus on the, “I want.” Powerful persuaders understand the benefits of digging deep to uncover the interests (what they really need) of other parties and then designing approaches that allow everyone to meet their unique interests.
5. Give control to gain support
Once you give control over something important to the other party, you’ve gained their emotional support in helping you find a way forward. People crave control and rebel at being told what they have to do. This may be the second most powerful tool to gaining support–second only to showing empathy described in point No. 8 below.
6. People prefer choices.
No one loves an ultimatum or a single choice. Give them two or three and let them choose the method and you’ll get what you want. Better yet, give them two and let them suggest one that fits somewhere between your two.
7. Move from fear to opportunity.
Your ability to highlight something like a genuine opportunity versus some unknown that incites fear will propel you to positive outcomes.
8. Flex to show empathy.
Most of us operate with what is described as an “empathy deficit.” In approaching a difficult person or difficult topic with a fearful person, flex hard to show your empathy for them and watch resistance begin to melt. In part, you’re triggering mirror neurons here as the other party perceives you understand them. Master this and the rest comes easy.
9. Reframe situations to shift a person’s view.
We anchor hard on our core beliefs, however, if the circumstances are suddenly framed differently, those beliefs lose some or all of their strength. You needing another headcount is stressful to your boss. You helping her achieve one of her critical goals is priceless. The headcount issue is ancillary to the goal focus. Let your boss help you figure out how to get that headcount and you’ve won. And so has she.
10. Rewards over threats.
We’re wired to respond to both rewards and threats in different ways. Instead of kicking your counterpart into amygdala hijack, emphasize the rewards.
11. Positive talk promotes progress.
People see potential when the focus is positive, and along with empathy, this promotes the right kind of mirroring. It’s tempting to focus on the negatives, but you need to do the opposite.
Applying The Principles of Positive Persuasion
There’s a great deal of brain science behind these issues. We’re tapping into the executive control center in our brains while promoting the same in our counterparts. We’re digging deep to project empathy and incite mirroring. We’re ceding control to gain buy-in, and the focus is always on expanding the pie—helping others while they are helping you.
In a typical challenging conversation where you are requesting something from someone in your organization, you will (or should) incorporate as many of these tactics as possible. Positive persuaders become masters at drawing upon them as they approach and navigate what Mark Goulston in Just Listen, describes as The Persuasion Cycle:
- From resistance to listening
- From listening to considering
- From considering to willing-to-do
- From doing to glad they did (and doing more)
Of course, the best way to learn to use and succeed in these conversations is to practice. At your next opportunity to engage in an “ask” of some significance, spend time on the following:
- Before engaging, strive to understand what the other person’s interests may be in the situation. Asking your CFO for a larger budget flies in the face of her focus on maximizing profitability. You won’t win on numbers. You might win if you’ve done your work to translate your ask into something that will enhance revenues and profitability or stave off competitive inroads into your market.
- Cede control from the beginning. I love indicating that you have a challenge and need some guidance. This simple twist versus, “I want to talk with you about increasing my budget,” starts the conversation out positively for the other party.
- When you run into resistance, show empathy. “It must be difficult for you in this role, where everyone is always asking for exceptions.”
- Cede more control by asking, “Under what circumstances would you consider… ?”
- Offer your options, but encourage the other party to add their own creative ideas to the mix.
- Strive to find a way to turn this into a win for all parties. Your CFO truly wants to be a part of helping the company execute on strategy by deploying resources in the right manner. Show that they are helping achieve that goal and it will be perceived as a positive and a win.
The bottom line for now: This is a big, important topic they mostly don’t teach in school. Those who manage to consistently get what they want and need in the best interests of a business and their team understand and apply these approaches. Everyone can develop the skills essential to master positive persuasion. Step one: stop arguing and start thinking about the person on the other side of your request. Build from there.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.