How to Persuade Effectively

Effective persuasion is a critical business skill. Asking the right questions can be the key to convincing an audience to your way of thinking. Do you know what to ask for to get your way?

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #230

How to Persuade Effectively

If you work in an office, or have a husband, wife, significant other, spousal equivalent, polyamorous family unit, or teenagers, do you notice that everyone around you doesn’t do what you want, when you want it? How much of your time is spent trying to persuade them to do what you want because—obviously—you’re right and your ideas are best? Would you like to make it easier to persuade people? Good! Listen on.

Most of us make an honest mistake: We believe that the best way to persuade people is to tell them why they should agree with us. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, people generally aren’t persuaded by logic, they’re persuaded by vivid, emotional stories. And puppies. Cute puppies. At work, though, we engage in the polite fiction that we make decisions based on logic, even while we sneak off at our lunch break to browse CutePuppies.com.

In a professional environment, though, everyone’s afraid to be caught looking at DailyPuppy.com. To cover our embarrassment, we pretend to be convinced by logic, especially when that logic is our boss’. Or our own. And therein lies the magic.

When you tell someone something, they think the idea is coming from you. And, indeed, it is. But because they secretly hate you and want you to fail, they come up with a logical-sounding reason why your idea sucks and theirs is better. If only their idea were the same as yours, you’d be able to get your way. So the key to persuasion is in letting them get your way, and thanking you for it. How? By asking questions.

Tip #1: Imitate Socrates

I started this episode by asking “Do you notice that often people don’t do what you want?” What did you think when I asked that? What are you thinking now? If you’re like most people, your attention is on answering the question, not arguing with it. It takes an extreme question—such as “Have you stopped beating your polyamorous family unit, yet?”—to get you to argue with the question instead of answering it.

When you’re making a point, do you want people arguing with every word you say, or genuinely considering what you have to say? If people argue with statements and think about answers to questions, does it make more sense to use statements or questions when making a point?

Rather than persuading by making statements, persuade with questions. This is called the Socratic Method, after the Greek philosopher Socrates, who delivered his lessons in the form of questions. Then he drank poison and died. If you want to be persuasive, ask questions that lead people to your point of view. Skip the part about drinking poison, however.

Tip #2: Questions Give Them Ownership

This method works because when someone answers a question, they believe the answer. After all, it was their idea! So a conclusion they reach through a question will be much more convincing to them because they made it themselves.

Tip #3: Identify Your Basic Assumptions

Design your questions so they first establish the basic assumptions you’ll use for your argument. If you want to make the case that your office should provide all employees with phone sanitizers, ask yourself “Why should we?” Your answer will include your basic assumptions:

  • Germs are rampant in a workplace with lots of parents of young children.

  • Phones are major germ carriers.

  • Sick employees are bad because we are decent human beings who care about people and want them to be healthy.

Tip #4: Turn Assumptions Into Questions

Turn each of these assumptions into questions. These become the questions you want to ask the keeper of the hand sanitizers budget. Make sure each question can only be answered in a way that leads to the conclusion you want:

  • How common are germs among parents of young children?

  • Doesn’t the average phone carry a trillion, gazillion germs?

  • Do we care about helping our employees to stay healthy?

Now ask the questions and you’ll guide your listeners much of the way through the argument. Instead of giving them the punchline, “Let’s adopt phone sanitizers!” you can lead them right up to that point and ask, “What do you think we should do?” If you’ve done your job, they’ll probably propose the phone sanitizers themselves.

Tip #5: You Might be Missing an Assumption

However…your questions must hit all the right logical and emotional buttons to be effective. You might have an assumption wrong. When you ask “Do we care about healthy employees?” the answer may be “No, we don’t. We just care about quarterly profits.” In that case, you may have to change your questions to reflect a profit-based logic, rather than a compassion-based logic.

Tip #6: You Might Be Wrong

You also might just be flat-out wrong. Maybe germs aren’t rampant in workplaces with lots of parents, because kids are dipped headfirst into a bucket of hand sanitizer before they’re released from school. In that case, you might realize that your suggestion isn’t a good one, and move on to more fruitful pursuits.

Of course, if you really want those phone sanitizers, you could construct an alternate logic that because of their daily swims in antibacterial soap, kids will have no developed immune system by the time they hit the workforce, and you have to start sterilizing now in preparation for this generation coming to work.

Tip #7: Questions Take Time

Asking questions takes more time in the short run than making statements. But overall, you’ll find yourself more persuasive and more effective if you take the time to think through, prepare, and deliver good questions that lead your audience to your way of thinking (that is, to the right way of thinking).

This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com

I help people become more persuasive so they can advance their most important agendas. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Socrates and Woman Thinking courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.