Sep 252010

Self Improvement – Exerting Influence and Gaining Compliance

Our predictable social responses

As “social animals” we are responsive to certain common preconceived notions and powerful trigger situations. Our reflex reactions are really very predictable. They form the necessary fabric of our society. We are taught and often disciplined to respect authority, conserve valuable resources, make friends and protect the helpless.

For some of you it may be shocking to realize how much advertising is crafted to motivate us and how much of what we say too others pushes social reflexes. On the other hand, it’s good to be aware of such influences. Awareness means that we can be in better control of how we respond and that we can be less callous or clumsy in how we treat others.

Don’t be cynical. People can be influenced. We behave in predictable ways. This is a normal part of our civilized behavior. We teach, sell and negotiate all the time in every facet of our lives. When you think that you’re right, you try to get your way. It’s not inherently bad to understand human reactions and apply that understanding. The evil is to use your knowledge of influence to move someone away from their best interests. Don’t be evil.

The purposes of communication

Sometimes you communicate just to share information or entertain. But, more often than not, you are trying to influence someone to achieve your desired outcome. Face it, you are trying to change someone’s attitude or behavior. Do you have that right?

Look at this question from another point of view. What is the point of any communication if there is no goal or desired outcome? Such a conversation would be as pointless (and probably as uninteresting) as a journey with no destination.

We all have things to share with others. We have unique backgrounds that combine our inborn characteristics with our personal experiences. You know things that are interesting. You have information that may be valuable to others.

When you have strong emotions about something, the ability to express yourself clearly and a kind sense of humor, you can really contribute a lot to a conversation. It’s okay to be you and express yourself to others. It’s okay to influence someone to your way of thinking or to make things come out the way you want IF YOU PLAY FAIR. But, remember, “influence” is not the same as “manipulate.”

Do you have the other’s best interest at heart? Are you telling the truth? Are you alert to the other person’s response? Are you flexible? Are you consistent? Does your desired outcome dovetail with what the other person wants or needs?

Stimulating positive results

Have you noticed that some people have trouble learning from a book? They may learn better when someone explain things to them or if they try it for themselves. Do not assume that everyone experiences the world in the same way you do. Different senses affect some people more profoundly than others.

Auditory people respond better to what they HEAR. Visual people respond better to what the SEE. Kinesthetic people respond better to what they DO and FEEL. Everybody responds better to a POSITIVE goal. Recognize that these statements represent tendencies, not absolutes.

When you recognize how the person you’re communicating with responds, you can do a better job of getting through to them. When they imagine the end results you want to achieve, what are they hearing, seeing and feeling? If you are communicating well, they will have a clear and positive impression of your desired outcome.

Backtrack a minute. Before you can share your goal you have to know it clearly yourself. Take some quiet time to imagine how things will be when you get what you want. See how things will look. Hear how things will sound. Feel how you will feel. You need all of this. If you get “off the track,” come back to this moment and you will choose more clearly the best way to achieve your goal.


My aunt, Joy Marshall, taught me that the mind has several necessary, progressive stages that must be experienced in order to make commitments. Joy uses this technique for emotional healing therapy. It is especially helpful when a person needs to recognize and release specific negative emotions.

Could You? First, you have to acknowledge that the change is possible.

Would You? Next you have to acknowledge that you would be willing to make the change.

When? Finally, you have to commit to actually doing it.

This is very powerful stuff. In the case of old resentments, for instance, once you’ve said “yes” to the first two questions, your mind knows that the answer to the third is “right now” and the anger just melts away leaving you all clean and shaky.

I think the principal holds true for all kinds of decision and commitment making. This is well worth exploring.

What gets rewarded gets done

These are twin faces of the same concept. Measurement assures recognition which can be all or only part of the reward. Look at it from another angle: why do something if nobody notices or cares? Notice the many ways that you respond to this principal and how you use measurement and reward to motivate others.

Unfortunately, this concept can be mismanaged for the bad. If a situation is set up to measure or reward the wrong thing, the wrong thing will get done. For instance, when I worked in a computer support group our new boss decided to rank us according to the number of problem reports that we cleared each week. That makes sense, doesn’t it? The lazy consultants grabbed up all the easy problems. The sneaky simply reported problems closed prematurely, forcing the person with a problem to call in a “new” report to get anything done. I didn’t like this game and wouldn’t play; I enjoyed the (rewarding) challenge (including the praise, recognition and reputation among the clients) of solving the tough problems. The new boss never wised up (and never seemed to like me, for some strange reason), but he did build an impressive rank-reporting database system that got him promoted. I see now that he was only doing the thing for which HE was being measured.

Price is associated with quality

We have come to accept and expect that something has more value if we have to work harder or sacrifice more to acquire it. This is expressed in sayings such as “You get what you pay for” and “You have to pay for quality.”

A seller of tourist jewelry noticed that one rack was moving slowly and left a note for a clerk to reprice it by 1/2. Misreading the note the clerk doubled the prices instead. It didn’t take long for customers to buy most of the rack. The owner learned a valuable lesson.

Coupons mean a discount

You know people who collect, file, organize and trade coupons. They save a lot of money. You envy them. The fact is that not every coupon is valuable to you. What do you save if you buy something at discount when you don’t need it? Worse, merchants have discovered that people will respond well to a coupon even if it does not offer a real discount. If you sell, it would make sense to pay attention to coupon marketing.

It’s easier to believe the experts

We can not know everything. In an increasingly complicated world, it is increasingly necessary to accept the judgment of strong authorities for guidance.

The expertise of the medical establishment still holds a powerful grip on popular belief. Modern medicine embraces science and science is capable of experiment, analysis and proof. That makes it difficult to accept an alternate model of health. Fortunately, the same science that modern medicine employs is now exploring, explaining and validating the traditional uses of many herbs.

If the issue matters to you personally and you have the ability to analyze the information, then it is more likely that you will take the time to evaluate the judgment of an expert. Unfortunately, complicated issues, time limits, fatigue and intrusive distractions make it less likely that you will think for yourself. It can be easier to ask a neighbor where they buy there auto insurance than to do due diligence for yourself.

Differences seem more different

When I bought a home several years ago, the real estate agent showed us several homes she knew we couldn’t afford right away. When she showed us homes closer to our price range, they suddenly seemed more affordable.

Salesmen use the same principal when they sell the most expensive part of a wardrobe or program first. After investing heavily, a customer is more willing to pay for accessories. When my family took a multi-day tour, we were reluctant to sign-up ahead of time for side-trips but were easier to convince later when the extra was so much less, in contrast to the full tour.

Try this experiment. Fill three buckets; one each with tolerable hot, cold and room-temperature water. Put one hand in the hot and one hand in the cold and wait a few minutes to get used to the extremes. Now put both hands in the room-temperature water. You’ll be surprised at how differently your hands interpret the same water.

We feel obliged to reciprocate

When someone does you a favor, you feel the urge to return the favor.

When you ask a favor, after having done something for someone, it is very hard for them to refuse. Have you ever been in a public place and had someone press a flower, card or gift into your hand and then request a small donation? Even if you refused, I’ll bet it took an effort to suppress the reaction to comply. Not only do we feel social obligations to give generously and repay gifts, we also feel an obligation to receive whatever gift is offered, especially when we are surprised. Free samples trigger the urge to buy whatever you’ve tried. We frequently return from the grocery store with packages of foods that we agreed to sample while shopping.

We often feel the need to make concessions to others who make concessions to us. This is the core of the negotiating advice, “Always ask for more than you want.” People will feel more obliged to meet your request after you have agreed to “compromise.” Once you have agreed to do something (such as volunteer work) you are more likely to agree to do it again. Not only that, but you will feel some responsibility to do it again and feel satisfied with the arrangement! Of course, if the initial demand is too extreme, the bargaining is not in good faith and the tactic will backfire.

We feel committed to our choices

Once we make a choice, we have a strong desire to appear consistent with that choice. Even very small concessions can lead to progressively large commitments. We will do everything possible to justify our choice. Nobody wants to be seen as indecisive, scatterbrained or weak-willed. For another thing, sticking to a choice helps us avoid re-evaluating that choice.

As an example, if you agreed to give to a charity, you would be more likely to agree to collect for that charity on your block. This is the core of the “foot in the door” principal. Once you agree to a trivial request or make an initial purchase, your need to be consistent will influence you to agree to larger requests or buy much more expensive related items. When our boys were young, we agreed to buy a small box of Lego® building blocks. From that point on, we found it almost impossible to say no to a request for more Lego® sets. We even took pride in seeking out the latest variations.

Consistency is not inherently bad. People quote Ralph Waldo Emerson as saying “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What he actually said was “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

We value what we have to fight for

Active public commitments such as offering testimonials or signing a pledge are some of the strongest motivators. For instance, if you write down a goal you are likely to pursue it. If you show people your written goal you are even more likely to achieve it.

The more effort you put into a commitment, the more power it has. This is why demanding initiation rituals (such as armed forces boot camps) are so effective at generating loyalty to organizations. If you have to fight for something you will value it even more highly. I have a ratty old sweater that my wife keeps trying to throw out. I never wear it but I’ve made such an issue of keeping it that I just can’t bear to let it go.

The strongest commitments of all are those we make our own by taking inner responsibility; believing that we want to because of our own convictions rather than because of outside pressure.

If everybody is doing it, it must be right

We feel a social responsibility to conform to group standards. It’s hard to stand out as different. When there is a group present and you are uncertain, you will look around at others for behavioral clues.

As an example, when I first started promoting my herb business I discovered a traffic location where cars backed up for a quarter mile on weekends. I printed a pile of flyers and went there to hand them out. Usually everything went well as my smile and I strode confidently from one driver to the next. People in the next car would roll their window down, accept my flyer and smile back. When I reached a fearful or grumpy driver, however, I discovered that the next driver was much less likely to take my flyer. It was time to turn around, walk back and wait for that group of cars to drive past the light.

We are very vulnerable to the influence of those we associate with. Children who are afraid of dogs lose their fear when shown films of a variety of other children having fun with dogs. On the other hand, “bad associations spoil useful habits.” Children become more aggressive when they watch films of people intentionally harming others. The powers of peer pressure on people of all ages are well known.

The power of direct command

If someone is uncertain they will hesitate. If you give a direct command, they will often comply. At an accident don’t just cry, “Won’t somebody please do something!” Point at a specific person and say, “You, go call an ambulance.”

The typical routine for handling a product demonstration involves giving some very specific guidance to the hostess. You explain the routine of introducing you and passing around the sign-in sheet. (That’s another example. You just tell everyone to make an entry for themselves and they usually do.) Afterwards you have her go with you to the next presentation sponsored by her friend and say a few words. Before long, she is giving her own presentations. No muss, no fuss. It’s just the way things are done.

When we switched away from accepting checks for phone orders, we discovered that the best way to handle the situation was to not explain. Now we just ask which credit card will be used. This combines an indirect command (“use a credit card”) with the opportunity to make a choice. Frankly, it works very well.

Studies have show that 95% of people are basically imitators (followers) and that only 5% are initiators (leaders). When a follower is not sure what to do next, they are very open to the influence of the group and especially the group’s leader.

Everyone likes to be liked

It’s hard to resist when a friend (someone you like) asks you to do something. By extension, it’s even hard to resist a stranger who seems to be likable (such as a Girl Scout with a smile and cookies). People who look good automatically seem more honest, kind and intelligent. This goes double for tall men and pretty girls. Those of us who are funny-looking, bald and squeaky-voiced simply have to work harder to make a good impression. Happily, when people do decide to like me, it’s easier to believe that it’s not just my flawless complexion and dazzling smile.

It is also easier for people to like others who seem familiar or are similar to themselves. (Working together for a common purpose builds familiarity.) It helps if you are the same age, have the same background or dress the same way. It’s a smart move to subtly imitate the body postures and speaking rhythms of someone if you want them to like you a little better.

I like to be liked. I’ll really go out of my way to please someone who really appreciates my efforts. When someone is grumpy, demanding and unappreciative, I just can’t seem to get as excited. Somehow I expect my labors will turn into another instance of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

We tend to believe compliments and especially love to hear ourselves being praised to a third party.

Compulsive response to authority

We have all been trained to color within the lines, do what the teacher says and obey policemen. We will often do what the boss wants even if we hate doing it.

This normally good response can become our most frightening social reflex. Strong leaders and governmental authorities have used their power of authority to influence armies and ordinary citizens to perform hideous atrocities against others and even voluntarily commit suicide. Think of Hitler, Jim Jones and terrorist organizations.

Part of the reason for the influence of authority (or even the appearance of authority) is our assumption that they know more than we do. Another aspect is their control of our rewards and punishment.

A practical example of mechanical, blind obedience to authority is the medical establishment. People routinely sign a release statement when entering a hospital (even for minor, non-invasive tests) that basically says that the doctors may do whatever they want to you. This is a mirror of the blind faith of generations of patients who meekly (and ignorantly) accepted whatever drugs or surgeries were prescribed. Hospital staffs are subject to a long tradition of submission to doctors’ orders. This is part of the reason that a typical hospital has a 12% error rate for patient medication alone.

Get it while you can

“This is your last chance. If you react soon and for a limited time only, while supply lasts, and if your application is selected, you can be one of the lucky few to win a rare original, banned in France.”

It’s easy to assume that if something is difficult to get, it is more valuable. Also, we hate to lose our freedom of choice. When information is censored or hard to get, it is more persuasive.

I love auctions and going-out-of-business sales. I’ll buy stuff I don’t need. What if I need it later and I can’t get it?

Because there is a reason

You ask someone to do something. They hesitate. You say “because” and tell them why they should. They agree to do it. What happened? It may be more than your persuasive argument. “Everything has to have a reason” and people are influenced simply because there IS a reason. Researchers have discovered that many people wil comply if you use the word “because,” even WITHOUT a reason. It’s kind of scary.

The best defenses against exploitation

The best way to protect yourself against being manipulated by these social triggers is two-fold. You must be aware of these methods and you must be aware of your gut feelings. When you notice that something feels wrong, stop in your tracks and refuse to respond further until you have figured out what is going on.

Are you vulnerable? Are you stressed, distracted, tired or rushed? If you are, you are more likely to make these automatic shortcuts to decision-making. These days we are assaulted by more information and under pressure to do more in less time. Knowledge is growing explosively and access to that knowledge is growing even faster. We can communicate instantly and have many times as many choices as earlier generations. We get used to making snap decisions based on minimal direct evidence.

When you notice that funny feeling in your stomach and realize that you are becoming emotionally involved in a decision, stop to decide why. Someone may be pushing your triggers. This might actually be a good thing. In this fast-paced world we need shortcuts for decision-making. But when someone falsely misrepresents the facts to get your compliance, it’s okay to JUST SAY “NO”.

Creating change

People tend to resist change. They are used to old patterns and relationships and feel threatened. Their negative emotional responses can make it hard to create change even when it is obviously in their best interests. There are techniques to help.

Create a vacuum – Dismantle or discard the old system. When we needed to move our shipping department to the store, I took the initiative to remove everything from the space that would be used. That made it easier for my staff to “fill the hole.”

Create the new framework yourself – Leaders need to express their vision. If you do enough of the preliminary work for others to see and understand where you’re going, it’s is easier to delegate the completion of the work. Your people will feel like they’re stepping on rocks rather than wading through mud.

Create an artificial crisis – If you just have to get something moving, cause an emergency. People will work hard to get things back under control even if that requires accepting a changed situation. If your teenager won’t take his dirty clothes to the laundry, just let them accumulate until he has nothing clean to wear. When this artificial crisis finally gets his attention, you can make him begin washing his own clothes. Of course he can create his own crisis by doing it so badly that you decide to go back to doing it yourself. Some of this stuff can backfire.

Managing change

Resistance to change is normal and can even be positive; it shows that people are involved and care about the situation. Listen sincerely to objections. Just letting people express their feelings can diffuse resistance. However, their challenges might also lead to improvements to the original plan. The resulting dialogue can improve communication and cooperation.

Communicate – Help people understand why you have decided on the change. Fear, uncertainty and doubt (the “FUD” factor) can be quickly neutralized by your courtesy of explaining the needs and benefits that led to your decision.

Involve others – People will usually support a change that they’ve helped to plan and execute. Why should you do all the work just to run into a brick wall?

Plant the idea – You don’t always have to ram change down someone else’s throat. It you start early and are patient you can gradually plant and direct the development of your idea so that others think that it is their own. When they “own” the desire to change, it is much easier to let them run with it and adjust their direction slightly as needed.

Reward and benefit – Everyone affected by a change needs to feel that there’s “something in it” for them. If they don’t, maybe it’s a bad move and really should be resisted. The timing may be bad or it may create additional burdens without benefits.

p.s. “Change happens.”

Copyright 1996, 2010, David Satterlee

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