Jun 06, 2014

Four Ways to Lose an Argument

As I travel the world teaching all kinds of “soft skills” to business people, one of the most common questions I get is “how do I influence people?” There are lots of varieties of this question, including things like:

  • “How do I get buy-in from stakeholders?”
  • “How do I build consensus on my team?”
  • “How do I persuade people that they’re wrong?”

Here are four common mistakes you want to avoid when you’re trying to influence people and win an important debate. Each mistake relates to one of four fundamental mindsets we use every day – ways of operating that I call The Big Four in my leadership model Winning from Within.

To understand each mistake, here’s a brief word on each on The Big Four: The Dreamer, The Thinker, The Lover, and the Warrior within you. The Dreamer is the part of you fueled bycreativity. It excels at innovating, pioneering, and visioning the future. The Thinker is the part of you fueled by clarity. It excels at analyzing, researching and evaluating information. The Lover is the part of you fueled by compassion. It excels at communicating, networking and collaborating with other people. Finally, the Warrior is the part of you fueled by courage. It excels at advocating, competing, and delivering results. Each of them can be harnessed for success, but can also act unproductively if you’re not paying attention.

How do they lead you astray when you’re trying to win an argument?

1) DREAMER MISTAKE – Don’t assume what inspires you will inspire others.

People find meaning in a range of different ways. Maybe you’re turned on by the chance to change society, but the executive who makes decisions gets excited by opportunities to build the company’s brand. In practice, if you need to win Bill over, learn everything you can about what inspires him. What change initiatives does he support in the firm? What committees does he serve on voluntarily, and what is their mission? What does he emphasize in speeches or memos about the vision of the company? How does he spend his time, and what does that tell you about his sources of meaning and purpose?

To persuade, tell a story that speaks to the dreams of the decision-maker, not your own.

2) THINKER MISTAKE – Don’t underestimate the importance of the business case.

Sometimes our Thinker misses the point that the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. You can make a compelling moral argument, and speak passionately about what you believe is “the right thing to do.” To some listeners, that will take the day. But if you aim to influence people responsible for business results, then offer them a line of reasoning that speaks to business performance. How will your answer address a problem they need to solve? Will it cut costs? Bring in new revenue? Increase client impact? Attract new customers? Will it build valuable relationships? Create new knowledge? Improve operations? Increase quality? Will it foster new products or services? Increase safety? Ease compliance? Strengthen reputation? In essence, find some way to link your viewpoint to serving a business need.

To persuade, make sure you’re ready to explain the business case for your opinion.

3) LOVER MISTAKE – Don’t assume influence goes along with job title.

When you set out to tip the scales in your company on a decision that matters to you, don’t start with the decision-makers themselves. Figure out who the decision-makers listen to, andgo talk to them. Oftentimes these aren’t folks with fancy titles. They might operate behind the scenes. They might not be equally senior to the people you want to influence, or even to you. But bear this in mind about how “important people” form their opinions: they frequently ask “their peeps.”

To persuade, go find the people your decision-makers trust, and get them on your side.

4) WARRIOR MISTAKE – Don’t assume the right time is now.

When you’re on fire to make your case, there’s no time like the present. You want to act now. But timing is a huge factor in effective influence. You might be ready to jump into action, but take a breath. Look around. Listen. Is the initiative you want to advance aligned with current corporate priorities? If the policy you support will cost money, how is your company doing right now? How were the results last quarter? If all the talk is about tightening your belt, this isn’t your window of opportunity for a costly new program. You also need to account for the world around you to determine if the time is right. How is the market doing? Are companies in your industry investing in this sort of thing at the moment? Is the result you support established as a general best practice, so your business needs to act now to avoid falling behind competitors? If this outcome really matters to you, ask yourself if you’re more likely to succeed next quarter, or next year. Timely action is what takes the day.

To persuade, choose your timing carefully, to make sure your argument gets heard.

What tips do you have for influencing people? How do you use The Big Four when you’re trying to win an argument? Please share your comments and advice.

Erica Ariel Fox is a founding partner at Mobius Executive Leadership, a lecturer in negotiation at Harvard Law School, and a senior adviser to McKinsey Leadership Development. She is the author of Winning from Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change (HarperBusiness, 2013).

Photo: Big Stock Photo

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