4 Strategies For Becoming a Master Persuader

This piece was adapted from my latest book The Laws of Human Nature.

Humans cannot avoid trying to influence others. Everything we say or do is examined and interpreted by others for clues as to our intentions. We are silent? Perhaps it is because we are upset and want to make this clear. Or we are genuinely listening as a way of trying to impress with our politeness. No matter what we do people will read into it attempts at influence, and they are not wrong in doing so. As social animals we cannot avoid constantly playing the game, whether we are conscious of this or not.

Most people do not want to expend the effort that goes into thinking about others and figuring out a strategic entry past their defenses. They are lazy. They want to simply be themselves, speak honestly, or do nothing, and justify this to themselves as stemming from some great moral choice.

Since the game is unavoidable, better to be skillful at it than in denial, or merely improvising in the moment. In the end, being good at influence is actually more socially beneficial than the moral stance. By having this power, we can influence people who have dangerous or anti-social ideas. Becoming proficient at persuasion requires that we immerse ourselves in the perspective of others, exercising our empathy. We might have to abide by the cultural prejudice, and nod our heads in agreement about the need for complete honesty, but inwardly we must realize that this is nonsense and practice what is necessary for our own well-being.

The following four strategies — distilled from the examples of the greatest influencers in history — are designed to help you focus more deeply on your targets, and create the kinds of emotional effects that will help lower peoples’ resistance. It would be wise to put all four into practice.

1) Transform yourself into a deep listener.

In the normal flow of a conversation, our attention is divided. We hear parts of what other people are saying, in order to follow and keep the conversation going. At the same time, we’re planning what we’ll say next, some exciting story of our own. Or we are even daydreaming about something irrelevant. The reason for this is simple: we are more interested in our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences than in those of the other person. If this were not the case, we would find it relatively easy to listen with full attention. The usual prescription is to talk less and listen more, but this is meaningless advice as long as we prefer our own internal monolog. The only solution is to somehow be motivated to reverse this dynamic.

Think of it this way: you know your own thoughts only too well. You are rarely surprised. Your mind tends to circle around the same obsessive subjects. But each person you encounter represents an undiscovered country, full of surprises. Imagine for a moment that you could step inside people’s minds, and what an amazing journey that could be. People who seem quiet and dull often have the strangest inner lives for you to explore. Even with boors and fools, you can educate yourself as to the origins and nature of their flaws. Transforming yourself into a deep listener will not only prove more amusing as you open your mind to their mind, but you will gain the most invaluable lessons about human psychology.

Once you are motivated to listen, the rest is relatively simple. You cannot make the strategic purpose behind your listening too obvious. The other person has to feel it is a lively exchange, even though in the end they may do 80% of the talking. For this purpose, you must not barrage them with questions that make it feel like a job interview. Instead, pay attention to their nonverbal cues. You will see their eyes light up when certain topics are mentioned — you must guide the conversation in that direction. People will become chatty without realizing it. Almost everyone likes to talk about their childhood, their family, the ins and outs of their work, or some cause that is dear to them. An occasional question or comment plays off something they have said.

Your goal is to make them come away from the encounter feeling better about themselves. You have let them be the star of the show. You have drawn out of them the wittier, more fun-loving side of their personality. They will love you for this and will look forward to the next encounter. As they become increasingly relaxed in your presence, you will have great latitude for planting ideas and influencing their behavior.

2) Infect people with the proper mood.

As social animals, we are extremely susceptible to the moods of other people. This gives us the power to subtly infuse into people the appropriate mood for influencing them. If you are relaxed and anticipating a pleasurable experience, this will communicate itself and have a mirror-like effect on the other person. One of the best attitudes to adapt for this purpose is one of complete indulgence. You do not judge other people; you accept them as they are.

A variation of this is to infect people with a warm feeling of rapport, through laughter and shared pleasures. Lyndon Johnson was the master of this. Of course he used alcohol, which flowed freely in his office, his targets never knowing that his own drinks were greatly watered down so he could retain control of himself. His bawdy jokes and colorful anecdotes created a comfortable club-like atmosphere for men. It was hard not to resist the mood he set. Johnson could also be quite physical, often wrapping his arms around a man’s shoulder, or frequently touching him on the arm. Many studies on nonverbal cues have demonstrated the incredible power that a simple touch of people’s hands or arms can have in any interaction, making them think positive things about you, without them ever being aware of the source of their good opinion. Such gentle taps establish a feeling of visceral rapport, as long as you do not maintain eye contact, which will give it too much of a sexual connotation.

Keep in mind that your expectations about people are communicated to them nonverbally. It has been demonstrated, for instance, that teachers who expect greater things from their pupils, without ever saying anything, can have a positive effect on their work and grades. By feeling particularly excited when you’re meeting someone, you will communicate this to him or her in a powerful way. If there is a person of whom you will eventually ask a favor, try imagining him or her in the best light — generous and caring — if that is possible. Some have claimed to get great results by simply thinking the other person is handsome or good-looking.

3) Allay their insecurities.

Everyone has particular insecurities — about their looks, their creative powers, their masculinity, their power status, their uniqueness, their popularity, etc. Your task is to get a bead on these insecurities through the various conversations you draw them into.

Once identified you must first be extra careful not to trigger them. People have grown sensitive antennae to any words or body language that might cast doubt on their physical appearance or their popularity, or whatever their insecurity may be. Be aware of this and be on guard. Second, the best strategy is to praise and flatter those qualities that people are most insecure about. We all crave this, even if we somehow see through the person who is praising. That is because we live in a tough world in which we are continually judged, and yesterday’s triumph is easily followed by tomorrow’s failure. We never really feel secure. If the flattery is done right, we feel that the flatterer likes us, and we tend to like people who like us.

The key to successful flattery is to make it strategic. If I know that I am particularly awful at basketball, praising me for my basketball skills in any way will ring as false. But if I am uncertain about my skills, if I imagine I am perhaps not really so bad, then any flattery on that score can work wonders. Look for those qualities people are uncertain about and offer reassurance. As Lord Chesterfield advised his son in his letters (later published in 1774), “Cardinal Richelieu who was undoubtedly the ablest statesman of his time…had the idle vanity of being thought the best poet too: he envied the great Corneille his reputation. Those, therefore, who flattered skillfully, said little to him of abilities in state affairs, or at least but en passant, and as it might naturally occur. But the incense which they gave him, the smoke of which they knew would turn his head in their favor, was as a…poet.”

It is always better to praise people for their effort, not their talent. When you extol people for their talent there is a slight deprecation implied, as if they were simply lucky for being born with natural skill. Instead, everyone likes to feel that they earned their good fortune through hard work, and that is where you must aim your praise.

With people who are your equals, you have more room to flatter. With those who are your superiors, it is best to simply agree with their opinions and validate their wisdom. Flattering your boss is too transparent.

4) Use people’s resistance and stubbornness.

Some people are particularly resistant to any form of influence. They are most often people with deeper levels of insecurity and low self–opinion. This can manifest itself in a rebellious attitude. Such types feel as if it is them against the world. They must assert their willpower at all cost and resist any kind of change. They will do the opposite of what people suggest. They will seek advice for a particular problem or symptom, only to find dozens of reasons of why the advice given won’t work for them. The best thing to do is to play a game of mental judo with them. In judo you do not counter people’s moves with a thrust of your own, but rather encourage their aggressive energy (resistance) in order to make them fall on their own. Here are some ways to put this into practice in everyday life:

Use their emotions: In the book Change , the therapist authors (Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland, and Richard Fisch) discuss the case of a rebellious teenager, suspended from school by the principal because he was caught dealing drugs. He was still to do his homework at home, but was forbidden from being on campus. This would put a big dent in his drug-dealing business. The boy burned with the desire to get vengeance.

The mother consulted a therapist who told her to do the following: explain to the son that the principal believed only students who attended class in person could do well. In the principal’s mind, by keeping the boy away from school he was ensuring he would fail. If he did better by working at home than at class, this would embarrass the principal. Better to not try too hard this semester and get on the good side of the principal by proving him right. Of course, such advice was designed to play into his emotions. Now he desired nothing more than to embarrass the principal, and so threw himself into his homework with great energy, the goal of the therapist all along. In essence, the idea is not to counter people’s strong emotions but move with them, and find a way to channel them in a productive direction.

Use their language: The therapist Milton Erickson (see chapter three) described the following case that he had treated: a husband came to him for advice, although he seemed quite set on doing what he wanted anyway. He and his wife came from very religious families and had married mostly to please their parents. The husband and wife were very religious as well. Their honeymoon, however, had been a disaster. They found sex very awkward and did not feel like they were in love. The husband decided it was not anyone’s fault but that they should get “a friendly divorce.” Erickson readily agreed with him, and he suggested exactly how to bring about this “friendly divorce.” He instructed him to reserve a room at a hotel. They were to have one final “friendly” night together before the divorce. They were also to have one last “friendly” glass of champagne, and one last “friendly” kiss between them.

Erickson proceeded to give instructions in the same vein, virtually ensuring the wife’s seduction by her husband. As he had hoped, the husband followed his instructions, the couple had an exciting evening together, and they happily decided to remain married.

Erickson intuited that the husband did not really want a divorce, and that the two of them felt awkward because of their religious backgrounds. They were both deeply insecure about their physical desires, yet resistant to any kind of change. Erickson used the husband’s language and his desire for divorce, but found a way to gently redirect the energy towards something much different. When you use people’s words back at them it has a hypnotic effect. How can they not follow what you suggest when it is exactly the words they have used?

Use their rigidity: A pawnbroker’s son once came to the great 18th century Zen master Hakuin with the following problem: He wanted to get his father to practice Buddhism, but the man pretended to be too busy with his bookkeeping to have time for even a single chant or prayer. Hakuin knew the pawnbroker — he was an inveterate miser who was only using this as an excuse to avoid religion, which he considered a waste of time. Hakuin advised the boy to tell his father that the Zen master himself would buy from him each prayer and chant that he did, on a daily basis. It was strictly a business deal.

Of course the pawnbroker was very happy with the deal — he could shut his son up and make money in the process. Each day he presented Hakuin with his bill for the prayers, and Hakuin duly paid him. But on the seventh day he failed to show up. It seemed that he had gotten so caught up in the chanting he had forgotten to count how many prayers he had done. A few days later he admitted to Hakuin he had become completely taken up with the chants, felt so much better, and did not need to be paid anymore. He soon became a very generous donor to Hakuin’s temple.

When people are rigid in their opposition to something, it stems from deep fears of change and the uncertainty it could bring. They must have everything on their terms and feel in control. You play into their hands if you try to encourage change with all your advice — it gives them something to react against and justify their rigidity. They become more stubborn. Stop fighting with such people and use the actual nature of their rigid behavior to effect a gentle change that could lead to something greater. On their own, they discover something new (the power of Buddhistic prayer), and on their own they might take this further, all set up by your judo maneuver.

Keep in mind the following: people often won’t do what others ask them to do, because they simply want to assert their will. If you heartily agree with their rebellion and tell them to keep on doing what they’re doing, it now means that if they do so they are following your advice, which is distasteful to them. They may very well rebel again and assert their will in the opposite direction, which is what you wanted all along — the essence of reverse psychology.

This piece was adapted from my newest book The Laws of Human Nature, now available everywhere books are sold. The Laws of Human Nature was six years in the making and is the culmination of my life’s study of power, psychology, and history. Click here to learn more.