In 2008, business school professor Frank Flynn and his doctoral student Vanessa Lake wondered how comfortable people are asking for help, so they decided to conduct a study. In the first experiment, participants estimated that on average, they would have to ask 20 people in order to get 5 to complete a short questionnaire. In reality, Flynn and Lake discovered, it only took 10.

The participants were undergrads at Columbia University. They solicited help on campus, so it's difficult to generalize the findings, although Flynn and Lake did replicate the results in follow-up experiments conducted throughout New York City--not exactly a "natural setting," but close. Despite these possible sources of error, the data supported their main insight. When we interact with strangers, we're bad at predicting how they will perceive us.

This gap in perception is especially wide when it comes to persuading strangers to give us something we want. Typically, we know what we want, but don't want to offend anyone, so we don't ask. Here are three suggestions (and a few books recommendations) to avoid this misperception.

Choose Your Words Wisely

In Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don't, Stanford Professor of Organizational Behavior Jeffrey Pfeffer writes about the research of Max Atkinson, a sociologist and the author of Our Masters' Voices: The Language and Body Language of Politics. Atkinson studies what makes speakers persuasive. Is it charisma and clarity? Those traits matter, but language does too. It's not just how you say it, but what you say.

Specifically, language that "promotes identification and affiliation" matters the most. If you establish a common bond with your audience, they'll be more willing to take your side. There's more to it than that, of course, so here is a list of recommendations that Pfeffer features in Power.

  • Use us-versus-them references. As Atkinson puts it, "It is widely known that the need to resist an external threat, whether real or imagined, has always been an extremely effective rallying cry when it comes to strengthening group solidarity."
  • Pause for emphasis and invite approval or even applause through a slight delay. This suggestion is especially relevant for presenters. Pauses may initially indicate that the speaker is nervous, but can also indicate that the speaker is confident. Sometimes we pause because we know where we're going.
  • Use a list of three items, or enumerations in general. Online, people click on lists because the allure of the unknown is difficult to resist. "19 Things Everyone in a Marching Band Understands." Please--tell me more. On stage or in conversation, lists serve a different purpose. They make a speaker look like he thoroughly considered all of the sides.
  • Use contrastive pairs, comparing one thing to another and use passages that are similar in length and grammatical structure. Nancy Duarte has a helpful TED lecture that illustrates this idea. As she puts it, "You need to establish the status quo... and then you need to compare that to what could be." Make the gap between what-is and what-could-be as big as possible to make what you're trying to accomplish appear worthy.
  • Avoid using a script or notes. "If you speak without aids, the implication is that you have a mastery of the subject and are spontaneous. In addition, not using notes or a script permits the speaker to maintain eye contact with the audience," Pfeffer advises.

Separate the Deal From the Dealer

In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini asks readers to imagine that they are negotiating for a new car with a fictional dealer named Dealin' Dan. Dan is becoming impatient and he wants to close the deal. Before the buyer makes a decision, he should ask himself this question. "In the twenty-five minutes I've known this guy, have I come to like him more than I would have expected?" If the answer is yes, the buyer should step away. We sometimes conflate liking the salesmen (Dan) with the deal he is offering (a new car).

Speaking honestly about our intentions in such situations can be difficult. We don't want to offend Dan, even though we know that we won't. If you relate, Cialdini recommends mentally separating Dan from the car he's trying to sell. Remember to "keep separate our feelings about the requester and the request."

Widen Your Options

If someone gives you two options, don't assume that there are only two options. In Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Dan and Chip Heath present a four-step model for decision-making that they term WRAP. The first step--the "W"--is "Widen Your Options."

For the customer at a car dealership this tactic means considering more cars or visiting another dealerships. A more helpful strategy might be to speak with people who have experiencing buying cars. As the Heath's put it, "Find someone who's solved your problem."

Published on: Oct 9, 2014