11 ways to apply brain science to persuade your colleagues (and bosses)

More than a little psychology goes into navigating the workplace shoals, and when it comes to requesting resources, mastery of the emotional tiller wins the day. Take these tacks for success.

How to persuade colleagues and bosses

Rare is the manager who has too many people or too large a budget for looming tasks.

Mostly, the work of managing is learning to do a lot with a little and then doing just a bit more with even less. However, some individuals break out of this mold and secure the resources needed to build and prosper. They invariably (and often unknowingly) are masters of the principles of positive persuasion.

To follow their lead, you must go where brain science intersects workplace conversations.

Every workplace request for help, resources, money, time and equipment is a negotiation, so you have to choose an approach ranging from win/win to I win/you lose.

If an apple pie were involved, principled negotiators would strive for positive outcomes for all—splitting the pie or, ideally, making the pie bigger. The other camp wants to keep you from eating at all. Strive to expand the pie and help everyone benefit—especially the overall organization.

Keep in mind these 11 core principles of positive persuasion when navigating thorny workplace conversations:

1. Seek positive outcomes for all parties. Every request you make requires someone to do something. Although asserting power or calling on the greater good of the organization might work for a while, there’s a difference between grudging compliance and active support. Operate with the goal of helping create positive outcomes for all 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 the oxygen in the room. However, people decide 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 if you lead with data 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. Though arguing over direction and resources is considered sport in some organizations, it is ineffective at best. This issue is fatal to gaining cooperation, but it’s within your power to change.

4. Prioritize interests over positions. Speaking of arguing, if you listen carefully, people mostly argue over positions and fail to uncover interests. They focus on I want. Powerful persuaders understand the benefits of digging deep to uncover the interests (what they really need) of other parties and then developing approaches that help everyone meet their particular 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, as is detailed in point No. 8.

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 options.

7. Move from fear to opportunity. Your ability to highlight something like a genuine opportunity versus a fear-inducing unknown will propel you to positive outcomes.

8. Be flexible to show empathy. Most of us operate with an “empathy deficit.” In approaching a difficult person or difficult topic with a fearful person, flex hard to show your empathy for them, and then 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, but if the circumstances are suddenly framed differently, those beliefs lose some or all of their strength. Your needing another headcount is stressful to your boss. Your helping her achieve one of her crucial 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. Use 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 benefits.

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 must do the opposite.

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 enlarging the pie—helping others while they are helping you.

In a typical challenging conversation, in which you are requesting something from someone in your organization, 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)

To succeed in these conversations, practice this approach. At your next opportunity to request something significant, take these steps:

  • Before engaging, strive to understand what the other person’s interests might be. 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 request 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 win.

This is a big, important topic they generally don’t teach in school. Those who consistently get what they want and need in the best interests of a business and their team clearly understand and apply these approaches. Everyone can develop the skills essential for positive persuasion.

Stop arguing, and start thinking about the person on the other side of your request. Build from there.

Art Petty is a blogger, speaker and management educator. A version of this post first appeared on his website.


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