• Sarah Hegland

The Case Against Persuasion

Fireworks: not trying to persuade anyone.

My phone rang yesterday afternoon as I was working at my computer:

Me: Hello?

John: May I speak to Sarah, please?

Me: This is she.

John: Sarah, my name is John from Acme Theater. I hope you’re having a good day?

Me: It’s fine, thanks. How about you?

John: I’m doing great. Do you know about Acme’s Education and Outreach Programs?

Me: Yes, I get your newsletter and have read about them.

John: So, we reach 35,000 people a year through our xxx and xxx . . . . [goes on about the programs]

Me: (Interrupting) Listen, I’m familiar with the programs and I’m happy for you, but I’m not interested in contributing to Acme right now.

John: We have some extra incentives that we can offer you over the phone--if you contribute xxx we can . . . .

Me: [Interrupting] No. Are you listening to me? No. Thank you for calling. [Hangs up as he keeps talking.]

Hanging up, I felt bitter about the interruption, less inclined to ever give to Acme’s programs, and less interested in reading their newsletter in the future. What happened? There were three points at which John could have listened to me instead of trying to persuade me. Here’s another way the conversation could have gone:

Me: Hello?

John: May I speak to Sarah, please?

Me: This is she.

John: Sarah, my name is John from Acme Theater. Is this a good time to talk? [‘I hope you’re having a good day’ is a sales trick that immediately puts me off.]

Me: It’s fine, thanks for asking.

John: I’m just calling because we want to talk to people about Acme’s Education and Outreach Programs. Do you know about them?

Me: Yes, I get your newsletter and have read about them.

John: Oh wonderful. Is there anything in particular that caught your attention?

Me: Not at the moment, though I appreciate the work you’re doing. I'm not interested in contributing to Acme right now.

John: That’s all right; we’re happy just to have conversations about the power of great theater in helping communities hold challenging conversations. We hope we’ll continue to see you at Acme performances.

Me: Great; thanks for calling.

John: Thanks for chatting. Have a good day.

What’s the difference between these two conversations? Both of them end in me not contributing to Acme, but the first felt manipulative while the second would have felt trustworthy. In the first conversation, John is trying to persuade me to do what he wants me to do, at the expense of actually listening to who I am and what interests me.

In the second, John is interested in engaging me in a respectful conversation about Acme’s work. He wants to build a long-term relationship with me, not meet a short-term sales goal. With the second conversation, I would have hung up feeling charmed by Acme’s work and curious about continuing to engage with them. Even if I didn’t want to donate right then, I would have been open to donating in the future.

Persuasion is the basis of 99% of marketing and sales strategy. Salespeople study all sorts of psychology tricks to convince people to buy what they’re selling. But how effective is it in the long-term?

I see two problems with persuasion:

  1. It’s a one-way relationship in which one side broadcasts its agenda at the other with little regard for the other person's experience.

  2. It’s playing a zero-sum game that says, “There’s only so much pie here, and my goal is to get as much of it for myself as possible.”

The alternative to persuasion? Inspiration. Inspiration seeks to empower both sides, because together we are more than the sum of our parts. Inspiration listens well to the other person’s interests, and is willing to put aside its own agenda in order to open up to new possibilities. Inspiration says, “We're making a bigger abundance pie together, so there’s no need to compete for wimpy pie slices.”

The challenging thing about inspiration is that you can't fake it. Acme Theater would really have to believe in its own gifts and allow them to speak for themselves in order to let inspiration do its work. They would have to be more interested in listening than broadcasting. The parallels with dating are obvious here: are you drawn to someone who’s pulling out all the tricks to persuade you to date them, or are you drawn to the one who’s confident in him/herself and doesn’t need your approval to feel good?