People often think of one great strategy or compelling argument as an effective means of persuasion. In actuality, persuasion of any import is rarely accomplished by a single argument. If that were the case, persuasion would look much like the diagram below, where A is the starting point and C represents the desired change:
A → C
Actually, getting from A to C usually requires at least a step B, and perhaps even multiple steps between A and B and between B and C. A more realistic view of persuasion looks something like this:
A → 1 → 2 → 3 → 4 → B → 1 → 2 → 3 → 4 → C
Most people don’t like to change things that they believe work for them. So, resistance is natural. People also face obstacles and limitations that interfere with their acceptance of even the strongest reasoning. A sure way to fail at persuasion is to underestimate the steps necessary to deal with these challenges.
While the model above is too static to capture the back-and-forth, quid-pro-quo nature of most persuasion, it does provide a guide for your planning.
Suppose your supervisor won’t listen to your concerns about project overload. It may be that A1 represents getting him to talk about the issue. A2 might entail convincing him to listen to your views, A3 allowing you to provide evidence, and A4 discussing the problems created by the status quo. Step B could be achieving his appreciation of the situation. Therefore, B1 might be gaining a willingness on his part to consider a change and B2 a discussion of how to either lighten the total load or prioritize projects to provide better focus on each one. B3 and B4 could then be specifics of the change, and C his ultimate agreement.
Granted, this is a static view of the complexity of persuasion, but it sure beats going in without a plan. Any actual persuasive effort may involve fewer steps than these — or far more. Adaptability is usually necessary, as well as a willingness to redefine C.
In some cases, reaching B may be the most challenging part of the total effort. Once your supervisor appreciates the situation, reaching C could turn out to be a piece of cake. Perhaps the supervisor believes that discussions about workload are a form of whining. Once that perception is altered, he or she may move quickly to rectify the situation. By contrast, you may work for someone who is quite willing to listen, even agrees with you, but who sees no way around the problem. Getting to B is easy; it’s the journey to C where you’ll need to concentrate your efforts.
The next time you want to persuade someone, consider mapping out what you can reasonably obtain at each point in a discussion, or over a number of conversations. Being right or in possession of compelling evidence often is not as important to effective persuasion as recognizing what steps need to be taken along the way.