March 2015 | 

When They Won’t See It Your Way: Four Persuasion Approaches That Work

When They Won’t See It Your Way: Four Persuasion Approaches That Work

The recent measles outbreak and re-emergence of whooping cough and pertussis in the United States has shone a spotlight on the anti-vaccine movement. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, 90 to 95 percent of the population must be immunized to achieve “herd immunity” from measles. But in many communities around the country, that number is far lower — especially in states that allow parents to get a personal-belief exemption.

Efforts to convince anti-vaccine parents have had limited success. Methods such as explaining the scientific data that supports immunization and even showing photographs of children suffering from measles and whooping cough don’t seem to be working.

That’s no surprise to Richard Shell, Wharton professor of legal studies, business ethics, and management. Shell, who co-wrote The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas, says when you try to sway a parent to vaccinate their child, you run into a belief barrier. “It’s one of the most difficult examples,” he says. “The mind needs a stable world view to function, one in which all of our beliefs and behaviors work together to create a whole picture that makes sense. Trying to change a core belief in that system can make the whole thing feel unstable.”

Shell has been teaching executives how to persuade others in Strategic Persuasion Workshop: The Art and Science of Selling Ideas for over seven years. He says many come to the program frustrated with the barriers they find themselves up against. “We have had managers in the program who need to convince people to accept and work toward a change initiative, and Navy Seals who are trying to persuade tribal leaders to allow them to work in their communities. These challenges might look very different, but as with the anti-vaccine movement, it comes down to belief barriers.”

What can you do if you’re tasked with persuading the seemingly unpersuadable? Shell has four approaches that can work.

  1. Keep an open mind. “When you hear the reasons why someone believes what they do, your first impulse might be to label them and reject them as crazy. But if you are serious about getting them to see your side, you need to keep an open mind. Listen and try to fully understand their point of view. Your own openness can sometimes trigger a reciprocal willingness to listen by the other person. Their explanation may also give you an opening to show how the new behavior you are asking for is, in fact, consistent with their basic beliefs — not hostile to them.”
  2. Use small experiments. “This won’t work with anti-vaccination parents, but it can be effective when you’re leading an organizational change. Have people experiment on a small scale with a new behavior or task, and let them experience the results for themselves. You’re not asking them to abandon the old way of doing things, but letting them ‘try on’ something new. They may see that it is not nearly as threatening as they feared.”
  3. Use a person of influence. “When Libertarian senator Rand Paul had himself photographed while getting the hepatitis A vaccine, he was sending a message. Although he has said vaccination should be a parent’s decision, he gave a different visual clue. A person of influence can help you overcome belief barriers by showing your target audience that someone who shares their basic beliefs has found a way to reconcile these beliefs with the new behavior being requested.”
  4. Find common ground. “You may have to dig deep, but there are commonalities you can use to show others that your views are not as far apart as they perceive them to be. It might be a desire to do what’s best for the community or the organization, or a shared desire to improve the profitability of your company. Finding something deep in your shared sense of mission or purpose can help you build a bridge to the other person to make the case for change.”

For Shell, persuasion is as much art as science. “Science is involved because you create hypotheses about what might convince the other person, and then you test them. There is a structured process you can learn. But you also need creativity. When you want people to see things your way, the same approach won’t work with everyone. Be flexible, and have a range of methods you can use. One size doesn’t fit all.”