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When trying to make a point or influence an outcome, a simple change of style can make a big difference.

Imagine a conversation between two parents about their daughter’s class project, in which mom feels strongly that she should start the assignment weeks in advance, while dad has a different perspective.

“She needs to start it early. She will do a much better job if she doesn’t procrastinate,” says mom.

“True, but the project seems manageable and is not due for six weeks. Is it really necessary to start today?” dad replies.

“Just sit down with her and get it started, okay!”

“Why is this my job? Can’t I relax for one day?”

If others don’t share your objectives, you’re stuck

For some, a highly articulate, rational approach just doesn’t inspire them

Stating objectives and using logic are legitimate tactics to convince someone to take action. However, they are not always the most effective, because these approaches depend on the other person sharing the objective. In this case, dad does not place such a high a value on starting early compared to mom. As a result, her objectives-based approach is not successful, at which point she tries to pull rank and gets bossy. Authority can be a valid influence tool, but only when a person legitimately holds a higher rank. Since mom does not have true authority over dad, using this approach provokes defensiveness and yields no results.

You can debate objectives, and you can defy authority, but you can’t argue with feelings

Mom needs but one shift to make her point easier for dad to hear, and improve the likelihood that he will respond positively to her suggestion: tie the situation to her feelings.

“Honey, the longer she waits to start this project, the more anxious I will feel. I get concerned when she has to finish things last minute. She gets flustered and doesn’t do her best work. If you could help her get started with it today, I would feel so much more comfortable, because then I know she will do well and not come unraveled. Her success and happiness mean the world to me.”

Now how can dad refuse that? It won’t be easy, because the basis of her request does not depend on any shared objective or position of authority. Mom’s case relies entirely on her feelings, and she makes it clear that she cannot help feeling anxious and concerned under the circumstances. Even if he doesn’t share mom’s concerns, he cannot discount them. Not only does she warn dad in advance that she will suffer these unpleasant emotions, but further strengthens her pitch when she points out the positive feelings that dad can help generate if he takes action.

The winning formula

This formula works in many situations, not only with married couples. Most people will accept others’ feelings, if they are expressed as true emotions and not as opinions or objectives, and especially if the person provides a context and rationale for them (such as the daughter’s work and mood suffering if she procrastinates). Here is a recap of the formula for your future application:

“When ‘X’ (unpleasant situation) happens, I feel ‘Y’ (uncomfortable feeling, e.g. anxious, angry, scared), because _____ (context or rationale for feelings). If you do ‘Z’ (action to prevent or correct unpleasant situation), then I will feel ‘W’ (positive emotion, e.g. happy, calm, secure, proud, relieved, etc.).”

Adopting a feelings-based approach to influence will be less difficult or awkward for you than riding a unicycle will be for this woman.

Like any unfamiliar activity, such as playing ping pong with your non-dominant hand or walking in heels after wearing flats for years, feelings-based persuasion can seem clunky at first. However, anyone can master this technique with practice, so if you test it out today and don’t get immediate and dramatic results, stick with it, and before long, you will be a natural.


by Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL