How to Win Your Next Argument

By Leon Rubis Jun 29, 2009
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NEW ORLEANS—While human resource professionals often are advised to use financial measures and other metrics to support their conclusions and justify HR programs, cold, hard data is rarely enough to win the day.

“Having the best idea in an objective sense doesn’t always mean that you can prove it,” Mario Moussa, Ph.D., principal of the Center for Applied Research, a Philadelphia management consulting firm, said June 27, 2009, at the start of a four-day seminar, “Organizational Influence and Persuasion,” held here. Moussa is co-director of the Strategic Persuasion Workshop at the Wharton School, which co-sponsored the Executive Education seminar at the SHRM 61st Annual Conference & Exposition.

“The most important skill for a manager is selling ideas,” said Moussa, noting that there are limits to authority. General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt observed that “if he has to tell people what to do more than seven or eight times a year, he’s a failure.”

The attendees introducing themselves on the first day described a range of organizational issues they hoped to learn how to address more effectively, including co-owners not always on the same page, power struggles within an executive team, hierarchical constraints of a foreign-owned firm and “culturettes” within a widely diversified company.

The latter problem is common, Moussa sympathized. “Every department in your company has its own culture.”

Moussa cited five barriers to influencing others.

Relationships: Not knowing another person—or even knowing them too well—can be an obstacle. “The key is understanding what’s special about the other person. … There’s lots of evidence that if you don’t have some base-level connection, it’s a whole lot harder for them to agree with you.”

Credibility: A key point is that “credibility exists in the mind of the other person” and is “situation-based.” One might be very credible to one person or group but not to another.

Communication mismatches areanother barrier, arising from people’s different preferred styles or channels of communication.

Belief systems must be considered because you might be asking someone to violate a basic value or belief, or standards and policies based on those. “Effective idea selling requires you to position your idea as consistent with (or better yet, furthering) your audience’s important beliefs and values,” he wrote in his book, The Art of WOO: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas (Penguin, 2007), co-authored with G. Richard Shell.

Finally, interests and needs of the other parties must be taken into account.

Despite the barriers, it is possible to become more persuasive with practice and preparation, Moussa said. “Although there is no place today where you learn how to sell ideas,” research has demonstrated some useful concepts and shown some effective techniques.

He graphed a “toolbox” of concentric circles progressing from influence to persuasion to negotiation.

Influence might be sufficient to get your way based on your expertise, competence and positional authority. If that’s not enough, you might have to persuade someone. But “if you can’t break a logjam, you have to negotiate” and compromise on an outcome, Moussa advised. “As much as possible, stay in the outer circles.” When dealing with someone, “if you always find yourself in conflict, that’s a problem,” because “conflict is more like milk than wine—it doesn’t get better with age.”

Leon Rubis is editorial director of SHRM.

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