Communication Skills: Use Small Steps to Persuade Others

October 31st, 2011 by LaRae Quy

Don Draper
Image via Wikipedia

Persuasion can be a seduction. If we use small steps to communicate our ideas to others, we can persuade them to move in our direction.

The word seduction is something we pay attention to. On the other hand, the seduction process is something we rarely notice. Seduction is a series of small steps—steps so small that we’re unaware of it happening.

“Don Draper from Mad Men”

Persuading people to work with you can be very similar to wooing a lover; it begins with a series of small seductions. No one knows more about the power of seduction than Don Draper from Mad Men. Here is a clip that illustrates this subtle use of persuasion:

Don Draper is an eloquent example of the way in which we can be seduced by words, and the message behind them. In my last post, Extreme Suggestions, I talked about the way big shocks to the system can move our definition of middle ground. The same thing can happen when the system is inoculated so slowly that the other person is unaware of what is happening

As an FBI counterintelligence agent, I found using small steps to persuade others to cooperate was very successful. It takes time to dig beneath the surface and uncover not only the spy’s real identity, but uncover their strengths, their pain, and their expectations as well.

FBI Example

This is a story of how one of my undercover agents (UCA) used small steps in one of our cases. Igor was a Russian spy in the U.S. and the UCA’s job was to recruit Igor to work for the FBI. Igor had confided to the UCA that he wanted to pursue a career in journalism once he got back to Russia. He planned to enroll at a university in Moscow.

Left hand writing the German word

Image via Wikipedia

STEP 1. The UCA asked Igor to write down the names of the schools he really wanted to go to, not just those in Russia. He then asked Igor to prioritize them. These small steps led Igor to actively commit to acknowledging his top choice of school.

When we write down our lists, our points of action, or our takeaways, it’s an active way to communicate that we’re taking it seriously and that we’re open to the idea of changing of our behavior. Active commitments are why good workshops have workbooks—writing something down is an active way of committing to our choice. It’s far more effective tool in changing behavior than passively nodding our head in agreement.

STEP 2. The UCA asked Igor, based on the list he had written, to tell him which school he wanted to attend. George named the number #1 school on his list—a well-known U.S. university. Getting Igor to admit that his dream school was in the U.S. used the persuasion approach of small steps in two ways:

  • He’s not just verbally confirmed it; he’s also committed publicly to someone else. We want to behave in ways that are consistent with our statements.
  • Asking someone to respond in a small matter significantly enhances your chance that they will respond to you in a greater matter next time. In confiding this small matter to the UCA, Igor gave himself permission to confide in the UCA on bigger issues down the line.

This example was important to the FBI because 1) Igor saw his future in the U.S; and 2) financing this education would be very difficult on Igor’s salary. This immediately uncovered not only the need, but also the issues related to the need. Using this persuasion technique was very successful in moving Igor toward the UCA.

Remember—that is the definition of persuasion: moving people in your direction.

By effectively communicating our ideas to others in small steps, we can use a powerful form of persuasion.

How have you persuaded others to move in your direction?


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