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How Not to Persuade Your Colleagues

Are you looking to persuade your colleagues to support your project?

Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn used to tell members of Congress, “If you want to get along, you have to go along.”

Half a century later, it continues to be sound advice for anyone trying to persuade their colleagues—whether it’s about a sweeping policy change or new processes that they will have to help implement. You have to offer honey, not vinegar.

But how many people, when faced with recalcitrant colleagues who are resisting our persuasive efforts, retreat to a conference room, stamp our feet and yell, “Why won’t they just do what I want?!?!”

Perhaps the problem is just that: too much focus on what you want, rather than what they’ll get from your new process proposal. Here are three techniques that guarantee a lack of support for your initiatives.

Go for the Hard Sell

Hard sell techniques are aggressive and high-pressure. You may think only used car salesmen go for the hard sale, but you could be using the same techniques to try and force your colleagues to accept your new process and everything that comes along with it.

Jay Conger calls this the “John Wayne Approach.” When using this method—whether consciously or unconsciously—people strongly state their position at the outset and try to force the idea to a close.

“Setting out a strong position at the start of a persuasion effort gives potential opponents something to grab onto—and fight against,” Conger says.

When you use a softer approach, you’re staying mindful of the needs of the people with whom you are communicating. If you are proposing a new process, perhaps it involves new technology and training. Make it a point to respond to your audience’s needs in a way that they understand. They will be more likely to consider what you are offering, even if it requires effort on their part. You aren’t going for the win—you’re building a relationship.

‘Never surrender!’

Compromise does not mean surrender. Especially when proposing to re-engineer a legacy process that involves multiple people or departments, compromise is essential to constructive persuasion. Before people buy into a proposal, they want to see that the persuader is flexible enough to respond to their concerns.

By closing the door to compromise, ineffective persuaders send the message that the conversation is a one-way street. But persuasion is a process of give and take.

Dr. Kathleen Kelley Reardon, professor emerita of Management and Organization in the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, points out that the ability to compromise is actually a sign of strength.

“Compromise is challenging,” she writes at bigthink.com. “It requires us to understand and even appreciate the views of people with whom we staunchly disagree. This is hard work; it’s much easier to remain entranced by one’s own views..

“But, where would the world be without the advancements enabled by many centuries of compromise in governance, commerce, finance, industry, marriage and other aspects of life?”

One Strike and You’re Out

Persuasion is a journey, not a destination. Rarely will you arrive at a solution on the first try.

If you step back and listen to the people you are trying to persuade, you may be surprised by what you hear.

To better understand your colleagues, don’t ask yes-or-no questions. Instead, try open-ended questions that stimulate conversation:

  • “Tell me about why ______ makes you feel that way.”
  • “Do you have suggestions on what we could do differently?”
  • “Please help me understand how we could improve.”

After you’ve opened up the discussion, create a process that incorporates a compromise, and try again.

It may be slow, but it’s worth the effort. Trying to force your colleagues to accept your point of view (while refusing to accept theirs) and abandoning an iterative process of decision-making is a sure-fire way for your initiative to fail.

Compromise leads to better, more sustainable shared solutions. When you’re seeking to persuade your colleagues, set an example of respect, be willing to hear what they have to say and focus on nurturing a relationship built on trust. You’ll be surprised at the results!

You may also like The Process of Persuasion, 5 Tips for Developing Indirect Influence, and 6 Expert Tips to Become a More Persuasive Person. 

Melissa Henley is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is Director of Customer Experience at Laserfiche, an enterprise software company that has served the public and private sectors for over 30 years. Customers are at the heart of all Melissa does, and her passion is around connecting people to content that can have a genuinely positive impact on their lives. Melissa brings over 20 years of marketing experience across multiple industries, including government, finance, and higher education. Read her posts here

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Martin Nera

Open ended questions here vs yes/no questions is a pretty big takeaway here. I like the language examples you provided.

Avatar photo Blake Martin

Awesome blog once again, Melissa. I totally agree with you and want to second Martin’s point about open-ended questions. These make the conversation more of a cooperative discussion than something more one-sided.