March 2015 | Negotiation & Persuasion
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.
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.”
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