Much of what we do in life is an act of persuasion. As a father to two small children, I can tell you that at any moment in my day-to-day life, I am trying (usually failing) to convince the two little ones to do something: brush their teeth, eat breakfast, get dressed, hang up their coat. On and on it goes.
If not parenting, we are trying to convince and influence adults as part of our jobs. As leaders we’re continually trying to rally the troops. Whether it’s meeting deadlines, driving excellence on client deliverables, or responding to internal briefs, we’re constantly trying to get people to do certain things for us (or for themselves).
Some people are natural influencers, persuaders, and negotiators. “There is a group of people who know very well where the weapons of automatic influence lie and employ them regularly and expertly to get what they want,” says Robert Cialdini, godfather of influence research, “They go from social encounter to social encounter requesting others to comply with their wishes. Their frequency of success is dazzling.”
So, what are these so-called “weapons of automatic influence” that seem to be possessed by a select few?
Cialdini’s advice for what works best
Decades’ worth of research has shown that there are, indeed, a handful of practices and techniques that are especially effective at persuading others. Cialdini argues, however, that there’s one technique that trumps the rest. Cialdini and his colleagues call it the “But You Are Free” (BYAF) technique.
Anytime you make a request to someone, always add the caveat “but you are free.” In an aggregate meta-analysis, researchers compiled 42 studies involving 22,000 participants, and found that in situations where the BYAF technique was applied, twice as many people responded positively to the request compared to subjects where it was not applied. People donated more to charities, were more likely to agree to a survey, and gave more money when asked.
The BYAF technique in practice
The BYAF technique is flexible. You don’t have to say exactly that phrase each time. It’s the sentiment that’s key. Some other phrases include:
“Don’t feel obligated”
“See for yourself”
“The choice is yours”
“Only if you want it”
Why does it work, exactly? The crux, argues Cialdini, is in “affirming people’s autonomy.” Autonomy is the intrinsic sense that a person is engaging in a behavior from their own volition. There’s no forceful pressure, coercion, or manipulation. Each of us is deeply motivated to act from a place of personal autonomy.
When someone is asked to do something or to comply with a request, they will automatically, and often unconsciously, ask themselves, “But why should I?” This is called reactance or resistance. When you do BYAF, you are saying to the person: “This is your call, not mine.” The result is a decrease in reactance/resistance, often without people knowing that it’s happening. They may choose to act from that place of personal autonomy.
Here’s a quick rule-of-thumb: When you’re asking someone to do something for you, whether it’s your child, your colleague, or your spouse, make sure your request doesn’t threaten their sense of personal freedom and autonomy. Better yet, frame it so that they feel they’re doing what you’re asking them to do not because you’ve asked them, but because ultimately it was their decision.
It’s that time in the evening where I have to tell my kid to finish their dinner: “Eat the broccoli … but only if you want it.”