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This article first appeared in Romanian in Biz Magazine in March 2021.

One of the main pastimes of managers is to persuade. To convince a client to buy their new service, the board to keep financing their project, the bank to extend the credit line.

And you? Whom do you need to convince next week? Surely you have a meeting next Wednesday in which you will need to persuade X to do Y. What is that Y? This article is better read with a personal example in mind.

Why aren’t we as persuasive as we believe ourselves to be?

The first problem with our persuasion efforts is that we put too much trust in our natural ability to convince and therefore we usually turn up for the meeting totally unprepared. We expect the meeting to go smoothly, we think we will waltz into the room, open the mouth, and suddenly all this wisdom and charm that we hide somewhere inside will just flow out, articulated into the best pitch there could be, leaving the other no choice but to beg us to sell him our service or whatever we try to sell.

Unfortunately, most of the times it does not happen this way, despite our natural talent. I will, therefore, make a case here for preparing thoroughly for such a meeting. Jot down your ideas on a piece of paper, try to think what the other will say, try even to rehearse with a friend or in front of a mirror. Writing things down also helps with our mindset. Chris Voss, hostage chief-negotiator for the FBI, wrote a business negotiation book, Never Split the Difference, in which he advises us to write down, before a negotiation, the clear purpose of the meeting, the best result we expect, and also the worst.

Prepare for the no, not for the yes

Even if we do prepare for a meeting, our natural choice is to gather many arguments that would get the other to say yes. This should not be our first approach. Before offering arguments in favor of our claim, we need to deal with the reasons for which the other would say no. Let me be use a very simple example.

Step 1. Imagine that you sell refreshment drinks in a park, you see me running (it’s summer, ok?), and you want to sell a bottle of Coke to me. Try to convince me with a short sentence to buy the Coke. Before reading on, please think of 2 or 3 such sentences.

Step 2. Imagine that, this time, you run through the park and I am the one trying to sell to you a bottle of Coca Cola. Unsuccessfully. You continue running without buying the drink. Think, in practical terms, of 2 or 3 reasons why you did not buy the Coke.

If you are like most people, for Step 1 you thought of stuff like “it’s refreshing,” “it gives you a boost of energy,” or “most long distance runners have some Coke at hydration stations.” Generally, reasons for me to say yes. If you are like most people, for Step 2, when we flipped sides, you thought of stuff like “I don’t like to stop while running,” “I don’t have any money on me,” “I already had a Coke,” or “I only drink Pepsi.”

Please notice that the reasons to say no have nothing to do with the reasons to say yes. And also that reasons to say no have priority. If you don’t have any money on you, the Coke may be the gods’ nectar or the Gaulish magic potion, it’s irrelevant. Despite this simple observation, our instinct is to start persuasion by serving people reasons to say yes, while completely ignoring their reasons to say no. Don’t.

How do you prepare for no?

So, how can you prepare to tackle my reasons to say no? First, you need to identify a few likely candidates. The best way to do that is, if you can, to ask me directly. If not, you need to use your imagination and your empathy, to put yourselves in my (running) shoes (yuck!) and to identify a few of my possible reasons to say no. An efficient method is to perform a quick pre-mortem before our interaction. Pre-mortem? Sounds spooky. If you don’t know about it, it’s a method devised by a psychology professor, Gary Klein, for identifying the flaws of projects even before starting them. I like this method a lot, I implement it in my courses, workshops, I conduct pre-mortem sessions for businesses. It always leads to a sort of aha! moments. I also wrote a piece about it.

If you do know about pre-mortem, you might wonder: what has this risk-assessment-assumption-identifying tool to do with our Coca Cola. It does. When you see me running towards you on the alley, you can perform a quick pre-mortem of the encounter: imagine I already passed by you, refusing the drink.

Why did I say no? Imagine that the persuasion attempt already happened and it failed. Why did it fail? Perhaps because I don’t have money on me, perhaps because I don’t like to drink fizzy drinks while running, perhaps because of covid.

Thinking of three potential obstacles and bringing (one of) them up will make you much more prepared for our interaction, will make me think you are actually concerned with my well-being, and, even more importantly, can give you a trampoline for persuasion: “I know that perhaps you run without your wallet, so you might not have money on you, but that is not a problem, have the Coke now, while you are thirsty and you can bring me the money tomorrow.”

What do you think? How can you use this approach for your meeting next Wednesday? Can you do a quick pre-mortem? Imagine it’s already Thursday and the meeting was unsuccessful. Why is that? Why did the other say no? And now that you know why, how can you tackle these obstacles? Only if and after our mind deals with reasons to say no, it will pay attention to whatever reasons may be to say yes. If we do not discard these obstacles, the answer will be no, regardless of how many reasons we will hear in favor of a yes. Still, unfortunately, when it is our turn to persuade, we ignore the other person’s reasons to say no. We usually stick to offering as many reasons as possible to say yes. Which rarely works. Make a change. On Wednesday.

If you want to go into more details about persuasion, check out the persuasion tool we run for individuals and companies.

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