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Pre-suasion: The art of always getting what you want

Robert B Cialdini
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Frankie Howerd
Take advantage of uncertainty: people are more likely to try and avoid losses than to obtain gains (Source: Getty)

There's a potent, yet little-recognised dimension within the practice of persuasion. It’s called pre-suasion – the process of gaining agreement on a message before it is sent.

It works by first putting audience members in a frame of mind that fits with the message they’re about to hear, thereby intensifying the impact of the message when they encounter it.

Ask, don’t tell

Let’s take some workplace examples, beginning with one designed to get you into the workplace position you want. When interviewing for a new job in front of an interviewer or panel, after saying that you want to answer all questions as fully as possible, say one more thing: “but, before we start, I wonder if you could answer a question for me. Why did you invite me to interview today?”

As a consequence, your interviewers will hear themselves saying positive things about you and your qualifications, putting themselves in a state of mind that is favourable to your candidacy before you make your case for it. I have an acquaintance who swears he has got three better jobs in a row by employing this pre-suasive technique.

Businessman with secretary
People who are asked to provide advice (versus opinions or expectations) are put in a cooperative state of mind before they even experience the plan (Source: Getty)

Find an accomplice

Now that you’ve got the job you want, suppose that you want to get your boss’ support for a new initiative or plan you have developed. Ask him or her for advice concerning your planned work, not for opinions or expectations regarding it.

It turns out that people who are asked to provide advice (versus opinions or expectations) on a plan are put in a cooperative state of mind before they even experience that plan, which makes them more favourable to it when they do hear it.

There’s an old saying: “when we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.” I’d only add, on the basis of new scientific evidence, that if we get that advice, we usually get that accomplice. And what better abettor to have on a project than the person in charge?

Read more: Most chief financial officers want the corner office

Their loss is your gain

Finally, consider one other common workplace hurdle to be cleared: convincing those higher up that you deserve a promotion. If you do indeed have to convince your superiors, there is uncertainty for you to overcome.

Research is clear on a relevant point: when people are uncertain, they are more motivated to avoid losses than to obtain gains. In fact, the idea won the Nobel Prize in Economics for Daniel Kahneman a few years ago.

Therefore, I recommend that when asking for a promotion, you begin making your case not by describing the benefits to the organisation that would be gained by assigning you a position of greater responsibility but, rather, the benefits that would be lost or missed if this didn’t occur.

The same rule applies to persuading people outside of your organisation of the value of what you have to offer. The Bose Corporation’s campaign for their new Bose Wave Music System was initially unsuccessful because customers were uncertain about this new product. When Bose added five words to the top of their ads, sales jumped significantly. The five words? “Hear what you’ve been missing.”