An Evening With Laurie Puhn, Author of “Instant Persuasion:How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life”

by Shel Horowitz

“If I asked you to name someone you work with, who you’d be very happy not to work with ever again—would this person know you feel that way? You probably remember the first moment when that person said something and you thought, “I don’t like that person. That person has no respect for others. [But] that person has no idea that he or she turned you off with that comment or action. That person is oblivious to the way in which he or she affects others. The important question is, are we ever the person turning someone else off? Are we unaware of how we might be saying things that create mistrust, disrespect and antagonism? What kind of productivity and productivity might we be missing out on?”

The person asking is Laurie Puhn, lawyer, mediator, communication expert, and author of “Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life” (Penguin, 2006). She delivered an information-packed seminar on persuasive communication to the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley’s May 2006 gathering. Because she requested that her talk not be videotaped, this article will be longer than usual.

Her program had 3 segments: Persuasion, Dialogue Skills, and Mediation/Conflict Resolution Skills

Segment #1: Persuasion

Persuasion has two main elements: Factual persuasion, which consists of Scarcity, Social Proof, and Consistency/Commitment.

“People want things they can’t have. Scarcity makes something more desirable.” Marketers use the scarcity hook with phrases like limited quantity, limited-time offer, and so forth.

Social proof reinforces the correctness of a decision by showing that others agree with your choice. “For example, why do waiters seat people in the window seats first? To give social proof that others like the restaurant.”

As for consistency, “flip-flopping is considered to be a sign of lack of intelligence, lack of principle,” and marketers can exploit this. Marketers ask people to promise to see a movie, or commit to trying a new product before it is available. Then, when the movie opens in the theater or the product is available, people often follow-through on their promise because having follow-through is a positive personality trait.

Some Examples of Consistency

  • A website collects pledges to see Al Gore’s new movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” on opening weekend. Marketers understand that getting people to make this pledge will actually up the percentage seeing it on opening weekend.
  • “Right before the 2004 Election Day, Oprah Winfrey created an “I pledge to vote” drive with a sign-up on her website. Many of these people voted simply because they made a pledge that they would do so.
  • “A magazine publisher asked potential advertisers, ‘if I were to have a new section on youth in the magazine, would you consider advertising in it?’ The advertisers said they would consider this opportunity and when the magazine publisher called back after the new section was created, he received a very high percentage of yeses from these new advertisers.
  • The second main element: personal persuasion. This persuasive power lies in our “tremendous responsibility to be a person who can motivate and ethically lead…people look up to you because they respect and like you. This power supersedes any other power. Nobody with a label of boss is going to have lasting power unless his/her employees respect him.”

A Few Tips to become personally persuasive:

  1. Complain with Impact: We avoid people who complain without offering solutions—but we flock to optimistic people who offer ideas, positive energy and solutions. Become a person that others like to be around: take a moment to think of a possible solution before you present a problem or complaint. If you manage other people, encourage them to raise complaints, but say ‘I really appreciate your input, I’m glad your eyes are open. But I’d prefer that when you have a complaint, think of a possible solution first and present it to me at the same time.’
  2. Be a Positive Gossiper: “A compliment is the shortest distance between two people,” Puhn said. “During your day right now, you’ve missed key opportunities to pass on ‘positive gossip’. Someone may have given a great presentation or landed a new client. That is an incredibly powerful piece of information. You can call up and say, ‘I was talking to Mary; she told me you gave a fabulous presentation this morning.’ By passing on a truthful and sincere complement, you show that person, ‘I’m on your side, I’m not jealous.’ That creates instant teamwork.
  3. Show You Care.“If someone tells you something about his/her personal life, i.e. my daughter is getting married, my father is ill, I’m going on vacation, this creates a perfect opportunity for you to follow up and show that you listen to and care about the person. Call the person after the vacation and ask how it was, or call and ask “how was your daughter’s wedding?” You will stand out for the right reasons as you connect in a heart-to-heart personal way and build trust.

Segment 2: Four ways to make dialogue work so you can achieve mutual understanding:

  • “Give up the desire to win, the self-defeating assumption. Otherwise, you collect the wrong information, ask the wrong questions, make assumptions, and end up in dangerous waters.”
  • “Balance conversations, 50/50 talking/listening. When you’re talking too much, step back, do active listening, and ask questions. Otherwise, you’re missing the most important information.
  • “Focus on facts and not conclusions. Say, ‘John, Mary told me you’re discussing a new product line. Is there a reason you haven’t told me about it yet?’ That’s totally different from ‘John, I heard that you’re keeping the new product line a secret from me. Why?’ Naturally, the second line of questions instantly turns the dialogue into a conflict.
  • “When something goes wrong: use disclaimers and focus on the future: For example, ‘I didn’t mean to suggest that you don’t work hard. You do work hard. What I meant to say was…’ If someone feels disrespected, it’s important to clear the table and create a plan of action for the future. For example, ‘I didn’t mean to disrespect you, and that time when you gave the suggestion it made the project so much better. And I really want to keep working with you, so what processes can we set up so that the miscommunication won’t happen again?’

Segment 3: Mediation/Conflict Resolution

The difference between arbitration and mediation: “In arbitration, an independent third party makes the final decision for you. In mediation, the third party says, ‘I will manage the communication process so you can freely communicate with each other and develop your own settlement.’ Compliance is higher when the parties in the dispute create settlements, as opposed to when a decision is forced upon the parties by a judge or arbitrator. The goal of the mediator is to enable respectful communication—to turn the fight into a conversation, and that happens with effective communication skills.

“When we try to resolve our fights without conflict resolution skills, we often use diminishing language like ‘you’re overreacting, let it go. Go for a walk and you’ll feel better. But the issue is left unresolved and it pops up again on another day.”

We can use conflict resolution skills to help other people resolve their conflicts and to help us resolve our own conflicts.

  • Tip #1: Invite someone to take a seat. “Someone walks into your office, fuming. Ordinarily, we say, ‘go take a break, you’re overreacting, he didn’t mean it.’ Instead we should say, ‘take a seat. Tell me what happened.’ ‘That says, I have time for you, I’m ready to listen.’ Listening is healing. Once the person calms down, he or she can begin to think about how to logically solve the problem.”
  • Tip #2: Articulate emotions without being judgmental. “Say, ‘you seem upset (angry, insistent on this idea, frustrated). Tell me what happened. Is there something that you think I don’t understand?’ You will watch the shoulders relax once that person realizes he or she is being heard.
  • Tip #3: “Summarize what the other person has said. You say, ‘you feel this way because’ (list the reasons the person just told you). When you’ve summarized the information correctly, you get a response like ‘Ahh, you understand me!.’ All you did was repeat the other person’s words—but all the person knows at that moment is that you were paying attention, he or she doesn’t have to keep going on, and can go on to something more productive.

Ending a Mediation:

“If you are mediating a dispute between two people, don’t let the mediation end without brainstorming about solutions: Say something like, ‘what do you think we can do about this so that it won’t happen again? Let’s throw out some ideas and then we’ll evaluate them and decided together which solution or combination of solutions will work best.’ This isn’t going to take 10 minutes; it’ll take more time. But you will get a lasting resolution because people feel heard and they’ve calmed down.

Mediators facing uncooperative participants can say, ‘If you don’t know what would work for you, how can I be expected to? We suggested this and this and they didn’t work. Have any of your friends encountered this?’

You could also take a delay tactic and say, ‘we’ve had tremendous progress, how about if we come back tomorrow after we each brainstorm three to five ideas?’”

Key Point. Confidentiality.

It’s important for a mediator to keep information in confidence. Say something like, ‘everything said here is in confidence; it won’t leave this room, so let’s talk about [issue]. I will only share what you give me permission to share.’

Key Point: Neutrality.

You might think lawyers would be good at these techniques. But Puhn, a lawyer herself, disagrees. “Lawyers are often the worst mediators. They have it trained out of them. They have opinions; they know who’s likely to win in court. If you are the mediator, you have to contain your own opinion. It’s very important to avoid taking any side. Maintain neutrality at all costs. This is the only way to get both sides to trust you.

How are Persuasion, Dialogue Skills and Mediation different from Manipulation?

“In manipulation, there’s a winner and a loser, but the loser may not realize it right away. Eventually, the loser says, I got duped—and both sides have a long-term loss. With persuasion, effective dialogue and mediation, both sides will benefit from the outcome and so will you—and so will the company.

Finally, Puhn offered a lesson from the world of sports: “I’ve heard many sports coaches say they have to intimidate and berate their players to get them to be their best, but I say, ‘have you ever tried to influence them by inspiring and motivating them to want to succeed—so they can make others proud, make their community proud, and make the coach proud?’ When people act out of fear, it’s a temporary response. One day they’re going to realize they’re being treated unfairly and then you’ve lost them, whereas with hope and inspiration, you can motivate people forever. The only way to build a productive and lasting relationship is when both people feel they’re been treated with respect and appreciation. And all that comes down to our power of words.

For more information about Instant Persuasion, free mediation services and persuasive communication programs