Persuasion through Selflessness


As an instructor who works with adults, I am often in the position of trying to convince a student to buy in to the goals of the course or of a particular assignment.  A few years ago, I experienced a particularly stubborn student who was determined to do assignments his own way and not in a way that I could give him credit for.  Basically, he wanted me to edit articles he intended to have published instead of doing the coursework.  IMG_6470This put him in danger of failing not only my course but the entire 8-month program he was enrolled in.  In order to convince him to complete assignments so that he could pass the course and the program, I asked him to meet with me in person, to which he agreed.  At first, I tried to reason with him, describing the consequences of non-compliance and the benefits of simply following instructions, all to no avail.  It seemed as if he were determined to fail the program, and I was getting more and more frustrated by his refusal to accept my limitations as his instructor.  Finally, I made an offer I had held in reserve: in return for his completing the assignments, I would also review his articles intended for publication.  Immediately his stubbornness dissipated.

I often tell my students that if you have more than one person in the room, you will have disagreement, and this case was no exception.  How can you persuade someone who seems determined, even to his own detriment, to hold to his own position?   I have found that negotiation studies provide many tools for dealing with such situations, as well as others less severe.  One tool that I think is particularly relevant to interpersonal relationships is the Five Core Concerns of negotiation.  As described by Dan Shapiro, the associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, the Five Core Concerns zero in on the five emotional needs of any person you come in contact with:

1.  Appreciation – each person wants their efforts and experience to be recognized and appreciated.

2.  Autonomy – God made us with free will, and people tend to resent anyone who uses force, coercion, or manipulation to make them choose a course of action that they don’t want to choose.

3.  Affiliation – we are social creatures and all have a need to belong, to be a member of a group.

4.  Status – we all want to be treated with respect, no matter our position in the hierarchy

5.  Role – humanity is purpose-driven; we all want to know that our efforts are working towards a greater goal; we all want to have a part to play in whatever project is being pursued

In the encounter with my student recounted at the beginning of this post, I had to tap into each of these points.  I had to show understanding of and appreciation for his desires and goals.  I had to respect his autonomy; I couldn’t force him to complete his assignments. I had to demonstrate that we were on the same team.  I had to be respectful of his identity as an experienced and knowledgeable professional.  I had to define, and expand, our roles as teacher and student.

By tapping into these Five Cs, I was able to provide the student with what Stuart Diamond in his book Getting More calls an “emotional payoff,” which is recognizing the emotional needs of the person you are trying to persuade and meeting them in some way, by offering to go above and beyond my responsibilities as an instructor in order to help him achieve his goals.  Another element that came into play was in line with Simon Sinek’s point in his TED Talk “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe”; the solution ultimately required me to at least offer to sacrifice my own time to further his goals so that he would be able to accept my goals for him.

In the end, my student said he did not want to create more work for me, so he wouldn’t ask me to review both assignments and articles.  Instead, he agreed to simply complete his assignments, and he successfully completed the course and program.  If I had insisted on my position as his instructor, we would have had a very different outcome.


Links and Resources

Dan Shapiro: 5 core concerns

Stuart Diamond speaking at Google about the concepts in his book Getting More.

Simon Sinek: Why good leaders make you feel safe

100 Bible verses about selflessness



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