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The 'Godfather of Influence' Has a New Way to Be More Persuasive

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Robert Cialdini, PhD., the seminal expert on persuasion dubbed the “godfather of influence,” is busy publicizing his new book, while at the same time advising the Centers for Disease Control on how to persuade anti-vaxxers to take the COVID-19 vaccine. He discusses both pursuits in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

Famed for creating the Six Universal Principles of Influence, the persuasion scientist has now added a seventh rule: Unity, to which he devotes a 73-page chapter in the revised, expanded edition of his 5 million-copy bestseller, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” (Harper Business- May 4).

His other rules — well known by now — are Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity. 

In the interview, Cialdini explains how achieving Unity promotes trust and partnership with an individual whose agreement “compliance practitioners” — as he calls anyone seeking to persuade — crave. Unity creates shared identity with another, and that produces harmony, he says.

President and CEO of Influence at Work, which provides programs on the ethical use of the science of influence, his clients include Amazon, Google, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley and Schwab — and he has advised the CIA and the U.S. Department of Justice, too.

The expanded “Influence,” backed by 35 years of scientific research, explores new research and serves up insights for digital businesses.

In our interview, Cialdini predicts that post-pandemic, handshaking will resume; reveals how to persuade centers of influence to send over referrals; and discusses why asking clients for advice makes them think of you as their partner.

He also explains how one of the techniques he’s suggested to the CDC to persuade people resisting vaccination would be an effective approach for financial advisors to use with clients.

Professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, Cialdini is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.”

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the behavior scientist, who was on the phone from Arizona. “The bottom line is to get an individual to comply” with your recommendation or proposal — in other words “to change their behavior,” he stresses.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

THINKADVISOR: “The prevalence of shortcut decision-making is likely to increase,” you write. What are the shortcuts?

ROBERT CIALDINI: The 7 Principles of Persuasion. Now is the most information-overloaded environment ever. So we need shortcuts through the maze of all the options that are presented to us. The shortcut principles are rules of thumb.

Why do you use the term “compliance practitioner” instead of, say, persuader or influencer?

The bottom line is [getting] the individual to say yes — to comply with your request, proposal or recommendation. That’s behavior change. We ought to focus on people’s complying, so that they move in the direction we’re recommending for them. 

What are folks essentially seeking in that sort of situation?

They want a partner who they can trust, someone they find amenable and harmonious. So, everything we can do to produce that situation is the coin of the realm. I’m not just talking about [getting] someone to believe in us more or trust or like us more. Those occur in the service of getting people to say yes.

What’s one of your principles that would help financial advisors, in particular?

If a prospective client sees a lot of social proof [evidence that many in the same circumstances as they chose the option you’re recommending] that a particular advisor or firm is associated with numerous positive comments, they’ll think, “Okay, I can stop looking now [for an advisor].” And they’ll move forward [with that one].

Why did you choose Unity as your new and 7th principle?

One of two major reasons is that in the literature of persuasion science, studies show how powerful the [concept of] unity can be in changing people from being hesitant or resistant in a situation to being compliant.

What’s the other reason?  

What’s going on around us now: the tribalism that exists around the world — politically, between ethnic groups, racial groups, religious groups. I thought, if we can harness that power in a constructive way, it will bring down barriers.

How can an advisor influence their centers of influence to refer clients to them?

If these [professionals] see us as one of them — because people favor those who share membership with them — and we can arrange to be inside that group, we’ll be favored and followed by them. That way, when we want some help from them, we can begin by saying, “You know, we’ve been working together as partners for a long time now —” And down come the barriers.

You point out that negotiations that begin with a handshake produce better outcomes for both sides. Is shaking hands ever going to come back?

Once we’re past the pandemic and most people are vaccinated, it will — because that’s the gesture of partnership. Researchers have found that if negotiators shake hands at the beginning of a negotiation, it’s more likely that the negotiation will produce beneficial outcomes for both sides.

Why?

That handshake signals an intent to cooperate. So not only should we begin the negotiations with a handshake, after lunch we should shake hands with our bargaining partner again, and at the start of the second day of negotiations too. We should always be signaling that intention to cooperate rather than resist so we see each other as bargaining partners rather than bargaining adversaries. Advisors can do the same thing with their clients. Always show that intention to partner with them.

Speaking of the pandemic, can the science of persuasion be put to work to change the behavior of people resistant to getting the COVID-19 vaccine? 

I’m advising the CDC on this. I have a couple of suggestions. One is a technique inside persuasion science called the “convert communicator,” which is very effective in getting people who are resistant to moving forward — antivaxxers are like that — by giving them access to a communicator [in their demographic group] who used to believe as they do, but then something happened — they received a very powerful piece of information about [the consequences of not moving forward] — that changed their mind. 

What’s the other technique? 

To disempower one of the reasons people are using to resist. Those who don’t want to get vaccinated say they don’t want to be pushed or pulled in a direction they don’t want to go. There’s a phrase you can use that disarms that resistance. It is: “Of course it’s completely up to you.” In 47 separate experiments, that increased the likelihood that people will go along with a well-meaning request asking them to move in a direction that’s designed to help them. They don’t feel challenged anymore. 

Would that work with an advisor, do you think?

It’s the same for an advisor. If you’ve got a client you’re trying to move in a particular direction, you can say, “That’s my proposal, Jim — or Janet. Of course it’s completely up to you.” 

Please discuss the principle of authority and how an advisor, interacting with clients, should walk the line between, “I know more than you, so listen to me” and “I’m one of you — we’re in this together?”

When trying to get buy-in with another individual, we typically ask for their feedback — goals and expectations for what they’ll want in the future. But as compliance practitioners, we should also be asking for their feedback in order to become partners with them in co-creating the best approach. So instead of asking for their opinion, we should ask for their advice: “What’s your advice to me on how to best do this for you?”

What’s the benefit to doing that? 

They see you as one of them — a partner in the process. Research shows they’re much more likely to say yes to your recommendations because you’re their partner, and they trust you more. That gives them a feeling of shared goals and togetherness in this task.

And that leads to a feeling that they can trust you, correct?

Right. That’s what the research shows: When they’re in that partnership, they not only want to cooperate with you and believe what you have to say, they trust your intention to a greater extent, which for me, is the real currency of modern business exchanges. 

Social media seems to be having considerable influence on how financial advisors acquire clients. So is the rule of social proof helpful here?

Social media plays a bigger role in that today because clients and prospects have access to a lot of opinions from other people like them about their interactions with financial advisors, including you, if you’re an advisor. If they see that a lot of people like them are sharing a view [of you] as positive, then they’re going to feel positive too.

What’s an illustration of the principle of reciprocity?

I’ve worked with the CIA to help agents get information they need from reluctant sources. And I [know of] a CIA agent in Afghanistan who was having trouble getting information from a tribal chief about Taliban movements and supply routes. Then he recognized a way to break that resistance.

What was it?

He noticed that this patriarch was looking exhausted: Not only was he leading his tribe but he was also head of a family that included four younger wives. So when the agent met with him on his next visit, he put a small gift in his hand as he was leaving: four Viagra tablets, one per wife. The next week the chief came bounding out and gave the agent “a bonanza” of information, he reported. That’s the rule of reciprocity.

You’ve been calling your principles “weapons of influence.” But in your new book, you refer to them as “levers of influence.” Why the change?

Weapons of influence has acquired a kind of negative connotation associated with aggression, violence or armaments, which I don’t want.

What influenced you?

Before I began a presentation I was doing for a health care group, one of the executives called and said: “On your PowerPoint program, don’t call them ‘bullet points.’ We don’t want anything associated with violence or aggression. We’re a health care company. And when you advise us how to do better than our competitors if we use your principles, don’t tell us that we’ll ‘beat’ our competitors. Tell us that we’ll outdistance them.” 

How did this health group rank?

They were very successful and highly rated. They won the president’s medal for the best health care group in the country. So, with the 7 principles, I don’t want people to have the association of doing battle. It’s about partnership and unity. 

Pictured: Robert Cialdini

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