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You can see the train wreck coming from a mile away:
“No, I really want the lime green with fuschia and brown dots.”
“Nah, I don’t need business insurance. Nothing bad has happened to me so far.”
“I’d rather just let my kids dress themselves for the photoshoot.”
Yeah. You don’t even need that situation to play itself out.
You already know what will probably happen, and how they will feel about it, and what they will say to you when it doesn’t turn out. You could practically write the angry email for them.
And it’s not just ‘their problem’ when disaster drops upon them.
They’re going to blame it on you for just giving bad advice, taking bad photos, being a bad designer, etc.
Sometimes it feels like no matter what you say, no matter how much good evidence you present, people will not listen.
But unlike, say, a conversation with an acquaintance on Facebook, you don’t exactly feel free to argue your case with a client.
For one thing, straight-up arguing usually backfires and results in them becoming more convinced of their own position. They’ll generate more and more reasons why they’re right, convincing themselves even further along the way.
For another, a major driver of customer opinion is not necessarily the actual outcome, but how they feel they were treated. So even if you are right and even if your method gives a better result, you may still have a cranky client on your hands. No one likes being argued with.
But sometimes, your suggestion really would make them happier. If only they would hear you out.
To help them see things your way, you first have to understand two reasons why they aren’t hearing you.
You’re up against two big mental filters:
1) People usually screen everything they hear through their own belief system, and chuck out the things they disagree with.
When browsing the comments on an article online, have you ever seen a commenter say something like:
“I stopped reading after you said __[thing in first paragraph]__, because __[thing in first paragraph]__ is wrong!”
Sometimes people actually stop reading or listening the minute they hear something they disagree with. Slam down on their mental brakes and won’t read a word further because they’re already convinced they’re right.
You can see the obvious problem here – if they never see another position or are forced to contend with counter-logic, they’ll never have a reason to believe they’re wrong. Convenient, eh?
But even when forced to listen, people still filter out information they disagree with.
They will often latch onto the things that support what they have to say, and disregard everything else.
For example, you might list three facts about the flu shot, but they will only remember and re-use the one fact that supports their position, tossing the other two out with the mental trash.
Psychologists call this the confirmation bias – people almost exclusively seek out and remember sources, ideas, arguments that support their view.
So your reasoning for the alternate color scheme, the suggestion of getting business insurance, or the advice that they’ll enjoy more visually-coherent photos may literally be going in one ear and out the other – if it even gets in the first ear to begin with.
But that’s not all –
2) People spend more energy criticizing an argument they disagree with than critiquing an argument that supports their view.
Let’s say you believe eating toast every day improves your health.
You’ll probably be pretty quick to share any studies, opinions, or information that suggest that toast-eating is, in fact, a life-prolonging habit.
But if a study came out that concluded that daily toast actually promoted early death, you’d probably suddenly develop the urge to critique the scientists, methods, data, and conclusions. With unprecedented vigor.
People will sacrifice more energy debunking arguments they disagree with than they would critiquing information that supports their views.
And this is a problem.
After all, the pro-toast studies could be the flawed ones.
They could all be funded by the bread industry and conducted by high-schoolers who have never taken statistics.
But because you agree with it, you’re probably going to spend less time finding fault with pro-toast arguments.
This is called the disconfirmation bias – your urge to pile mud upon things you disagree with is greater than the urge to critically examine your own view.
(If you’re keeping track at home, remember: the confirmation bias is where you only take on board info that confirms your beliefs; the disconfirmation bias is where you want to disconfirm any information that disagrees with you.
You’d think they would have come up with easier-to-distinguish labels for these things, but no one asked me.)
So, to sum up: People tend to ignore and discredit stuff they disagree with, rather than really examining their own beliefs.
But there is something you can do:
When you are trying to persuade someone, agree with them first, then present additional information.
“Well yes, lime really is “in” this season, and I can see why you’d want such a fresh and lovely color.”
“Well yeah, business insurance does cost money, and things seem to be going okay, so why bother with the expense? I totally get that.”
“Of course, you want your kids to express themselves. You want to remember their funny, creative personalities and let them be ‘them.'”
If the first thing out of your mouth is agreement, it disarms people. They exhale a bit and lower their weapons of retaliation.
It also makes it clear that you heard them and get where they’re coming from, which is critical. You get them, you’re not about to treat them like idiots for thinking what they do.
Then, and only then, you can move on to provide some additional information.
Side note: When you make that pivot, be sure not to use the word “but.”
“BUT” negates everything you said previously and immediately brings those defensive systems back up. You might as well have not said anything before that word. Use “and” or “also” type statements instead.
Here’s an example:
“Well yes, lime really is “in” this season, and I can see why you’d want such a fresh and lovely color.
One thing to note is that lime and fuchsia are both bright, eye-catching colors. Sometimes eye-catching colors can overwhelm a viewer with lots of information all at once. These colors tend to have the biggest impact if you use just one of them as an accent color.
Kind of like how if you are at a loud shopping mall, there are competing noises and it’s hard to distinguish just one person talking. We want to make sure that your design isn’t competing against itself, and that your viewers’ eyes are really drawn to ______ first – just that color does the talking.
I’ve attached a mock-up design showing the difference for you to review. What do you think – does using lime as an accent makes ______ stand out more?”
Instead of just saying “I don’t think fuschia, lime, and brown are good together,” or upfront refusing because “that is hideous and I’m not doing that” – focus on giving them additional information that will let them change their own mind.
Expressing something as additional information, rather than an argument, tunes a stubborn ear to you faster than all the credentials or “I do this for a living!!!!” statements in the world.
But it’s crucial that the agreeing-with-them part comes first.
An interesting study from way back in the 1940’s (by Solomon Asch) shows us why:
Imagine I was going to tell you about a person you didn’t know, and I described them as:
“intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious”
you might think of them differently than if I described them to you as:
“envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent”
You may have noticed that it’s the same set of words in each case, just reversed. But it turns out that we weight the first information we receive more heavily than later information. If I describe someone as “intelligent” first, then “envious” seems less damaging. If I described them as critical and stubborn first, then “intelligent” would seem like less of a compensating virtue.
We pay a lot of attention to the thing we hear first. It sets the tone for everything else.
When you agree with someone first, you’re showing them right away, “Hey, I’m on your side.”
And they’ll weight that a lot more heavily than if you laid out your case, then said “but lime, brown, and fuschia could work too.”
To close, here’s the best piece of advice I got in graduate school about persuasion:
“Try to make your case on grounds the other person shares.”
If you start out by finding a piece of their argument you agree with, and you acknowledge that, people will ease up on the bias filters and feel more at ease listening to you.
Try it out, let me know what happens!
(By the way….this works with family and friends, too.)
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Have a great week!