Sunday, 9 June 2013

“How could they possibly not agree with me?” -- Five ingredients for brewing the perfect persuasive argument at work

Persuasion is the process of convincing others to change their point of view or behaviour using argument rather than force and is based on 'free-will' i.e. free of coercion.

A persuasive argument involves a review of other perspectives on the issue and supports the reasons as well as outlines the consequences of accepting (or not accepting) the argument being proposed.

The genesis for writing about persuasive argument making at work came about as I was witness to a discussion at work on whether to go ahead with a specific action or not. In general, my feeling was that the decision to go ahead would not happen; however, during the discussion one of the executives in attendance outlined why he was keen on the proposal. After hearing him out I sensed a change in stance in my perspective even though I had come to the meeting with the intent to say no to the same. The meeting ended in all agreeing with the persuasive argument pur forth my the executive.

I realised that the executive's ability to put together a persuasive argument for action could have worked both ways. If used incorrectly, a persuasive argument can also support the wrong decision also! There are many examples of bad decision making in the corporate world and I am convinced that behind those decisions stands someone who made a persuasive argument to get buy-in and those who listended to it put common sense in abeyance! Think about this and you will be able to understand why it is possible for organisations to take steps and make decisions that in hind-sight one would consider as illogical.

The purpose of this blog is not to articulate a deviant way to make your case or forcefully win an agreement but rather to figure out the best way to persuade others to align with your point of view.

From my experience there seem to be five ingredients to consider when putting together a persuasive argument. The goal is to blend these ingredients to give you the confidence to declare with conviction “How could they possibly not agree with me?”

Ingredient 1 – Make your stance clear at the start of any discussion or argument

My experience has taught me that securing agreement starts with clearly stating your position at the start of any discussion. What is it that you want? What is the desirable outcome? This ensures that the conversation is focused from the beginning on an outcome that you want rather than allowed to start off loosely and then meander its way to a conclusion. Unstructured debate generally confuses and starting off with a clear anchor point will bring speed and structure to the discussion.

Ingredient 2 – Show confidence in your argument

There is a reason why the word ‘con’ has become a common feature in the English language. It is generally used to show how a person gains the confidence of an individual to then trick them or swindle them. My intent with bringing this word into this discussion is leverage the reality that humans are emotional by nature and that confidence appeals to the human desire to seek an anchor from where to build a liking or opposition to an argument.

Confidence is critical as it will also bring energy to your argument. Most people remember the confidence that radiated from your argument and persona rather than actually remember the precise words that you used when you positioned your argument.

Ingredient 3 – Use story telling but weave in facts and data

My experience has taught me that storytelling is a powerful means to communicate in the corporate world. However, my experience also forces me to caution that when presenting a persuasive argument you are better off weaving facts and data into the fabric of your story. Without some appropriate facts or data you are going to rely on empty rhetoric and that by itself will not work as it is contrarian to a purposeful persuasive argument.

Remember that emotion led debate is not ‘the truth’. Data and logic is ‘the truth’ and the same must be used smartly as there is ‘truth’ in the adage that 'the truth will set you free [Veritas vos liberabit].

Also be cautioned before liberally sprinkling your argument with data and facts as there is also truth in the adage that “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics” [Mark Twain]. Many people also use data as a form of distraction similar to how emotional appeals work.

Ingredient 4 – Tell them what is in it for them

So you have got the confidence and the facts and figures with you. Remember that people are likely to be interested in your point of view if you are able to articulate what is in it for them i.e. how the decision will be meaningful to others.

Also outline what stands to be lost if others don’t agree with you while outlining what is to be gained by listening to you. People will move further on the agreement continuum if they understand the motivation to change (and agree to it) and if the outcomes appeal to them. Remember to highlight the opportunity cost of not doing what you are proposing to be done.  Ensure that all 
see that your argument provides the maximum utility to everyone (and not only to you!).

Ingredient 5 – Hear the other side of the argument but focus on refuting opposing view(s)

It is clear that you have taken a position and are working towards getting agreement to your point of view. However, one disarming tool used by the best persuaders is the use of some simple questions that shows a genuine (not feigned) interest in getting a decision on the table -- “What do you think?” or “What is your point of view?” or “Is there another way to look at this issue or problem?” Clearly, you have already positioned yourself on one side of the equation but to ensure that you show your ability to understand both sides of the issue as well as ensure commitment to the ultimate decision it is critical to hear people out and ensure that people acknowledge your desire to understand both sides of the coin.

Remember that there is a danger that your argument is being diluted unless you are consistently raising and pointing out gaps in reasoning as objections are being raised or other options being discussed. Don’t criticise but rather aim to discredit opposing views by showing logical flaws, loop-holes and risks arising from other suggestions or the opposing view. But please do leverage anything positive that comes out of other opposing views and link them back to bolster your argument.

In closing, remember that our goal is to get support and agreement for our point of view. Where the ingredients above are not used correctly there may still be some who will look for an opportunity to undermine or retaliate at the first opportunity. If you have used these principles then the fairness of the process will ensure that the persuasive argument has worked.

And what is the worst that can happen? Perhaps your argument does not win but for me a debate is a far more constructive way to build consensus rather than relying on your position in the hierarchy to force a decision and then gloat in the joy that ‘might is right’ will deliver an outcome, which in all likelihood is perceived as ‘selfish’. Surely persuasive arguments contribute immensely to organisational value building and build your reputation as a reasonable and rational human-being? I would trade that moniker for the many other titles that await me in the corporate world!


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