I was a bit of a renegade in my years in the corporate world. I saw things that needed to change, and I felt it was the right thing to do to prepare my case to get them changed. For much of my career, there was just this one little problem: I wasn’t all that good at persuading others to my way. It often felt like I was pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill.
I’d prepare my reasoning in a way that felt right to me; I often found myself thinking as I put the finishing touches on my proposals, “This is good. If I were my boss, peers or employees, I’d say yes to this.”
Often I see the leaders I work with making the same mistakes I made; assuming that all they need to do is to use their reason to push that boulder uphill to get their way. Unfortunately. pushing isn’t always the answer. The more they push, the more others push back. And so their persuasion attempts escalate into impatience, frustration and anger on their part and on the part of those they need to persuade.
At some point I learned a thing or two about persuasion: It isn’t always easy and it isn’t as fast as I (or you) may like, but it can work more often than not. I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you:
Develop trust with those who are affected. Generally, what this means is that they need to know you and feel that you have the best interests of all stakeholders — most especially themselves — at heart. This is the “not fast” part. In most cases, you’ll need to spend time as you are formulating your ideas talking to those who are or will be affected; listening to their ideas, exchanging thoughts, getting to know and trust each other. When you are open to stakeholders’ input you’ll create trust and often develop partners who will support you when it comes time to make the final proposal.
Be honest about upsides and downsides. How many times have you seen someone lose out on persuading decision makers because they downplayed or didn’t address the downsides? Either they were so wrapped up in the passion they felt about their proposal that they couldn’t see the negatives or they were just plain dishonest. Everything has a downside, and the decision makers know that. Make sure you know what it is and be honest about the efforts it will take to overcome these obstacles.
Understand your audience well. This was my biggest mistake until I learned that most often my audience was more often interested in the facts of a proposal (How long will it take? What will it cost? What resources will be needed?) than they were in how important I thought something was, or how much passion I had about it. Other audiences will want something else, and it will be important to understand what that is and to feature it prominently in your pitches.
Work toward win/win. You’ll never make everyone happy, but how can you minimize the damage or negative reactions from the stakeholders who are most affected by what you’re proposing (and still remain honest about the hurdles)?
Use more than information. Information and facts are very important in presenting your ideas. However influence is most effective when you use compelling language and show your beliefs about what you’re proposing in a way that is emotionally expressive. There is certainly a line that can be crossed here, but most often I see persuasive arguments presented in flat, almost clinical wording and tone of voice. If your audience can see your excitement, they are more likely to approve of what you’re pitching.
Stop pushing that proposal boulder uphill by creating trusting relationships, understanding the objections and your audience, working toward win/win and using emotion to sell your ideas. You just might see more of them adopted.
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 10 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages large-scale corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.