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Overcome objections

Forget Columbus. Americans owe Luis

Even before the birth of our nation, persuasive tools proved vital for explorers and others who needed funding for their projects. Witness the story of Luis de Santangel who persuaded Queen Isabella of Spain to reconsider a proposal she had rejected…a proposal from Christopher Columbus to explore the New World. Because of Santangel’s remarkably persuasive skills, Columbus was located and told that his proposal, after all, would be funded by the Spanish government. The rest, of course, is [American] history.

Skip forward 500 years. Move from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic story of Alex Chivescu, whose persuasive words helped him locate a new family. You may have seen him on “Good Morning, America.” He’s the 17-year-old who explored the possibility of finding a family to support him. He went from an abusive home situation, to an orphanage, and–through his persuasive letters–into the welcoming and loving arms of a new set of parents.

CONVINCING OTHERS

Your own circumstances may not be historical or familial. But, there are times–probably at least once a day–when you’d like to convince a co-worker, a boss, a family member, et alia that your idea deserves serious consideration. Take this test to find out if you have what it takes on the persuasive front.

To influence well, you must not only advance by taking the offensive, but you must also be prepared to defend your position when it comes under attack. When you address an audience, you are pre-active: you inspire and motivate and explore ideas prior to execution. You encourage others to be pro-active and re-active. Some of the reactions, though, may be critical. If that happens, you must be non-defensive in your defense. Even if you suspect the questions or comments fall into the heckling category, you must maintain a professional stance as you reply. It is altogether possible the questions are simply questions and not criticisms or indictments. Even if the responses to your proposal are vitriolic in nature, you must still respond from an information-sharing and not a sarcasm-venting position. The following tips, used alone or in combination, will assist you in dealing with objections to the proposals you make.

TWELVE TIPS FOR INFLUENCING OTHERS

1. If possible, especially in a large group setting, restate the comment in a way that is less damaging to your position. For example, assume you are a manager asked by the company president to encourage empowerment among employees. You’ve called together the whole department and have made a convincing case, you feel, for the importance of empowered actions and the benefits that will accrue to individuals, teams, and to the organization itself.

Someone in the back of the room raises her hand and loudly declares, “This just sounds like another management ploy to get us to work harder without rewarding us for our efforts.”

If you re-state her viewpoint verbatim you will be reinforcing its negativity. But, with a slight twist, you can still capture her concern and yet present it in a more positive light. Here’s one thing you might say. (You will need to say it quickly before the person jumps up to contradict you. Move right into the explanation of why the concern is unfounded.)

“Tamara is worried that empowerment could mean working harder without being rewarded for doing so. It’s a legitimate concern, but let me tell you why it shouldn’t worry you. First of all, empowerment is not mandatory. If you don’t want to be empowered, no one will force you to be. Secondly, what often happens is that empowered employees can actually reduce their workload. For example, if you feel there is duplication in some of the record-keeping you have to do, you should be able to point this out to your supervisor and with her approval, eliminate the unnecessary paperwork.”

2. It often helps, when an objection is raised, to mentally convert that comment to a question so you can address it with reasons and not emotions. In a meeting, for example, you may be suggesting a particular course of action and the office curmudgeon might point out, “We tried that three years ago. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.”

By translating that comment to a question–“Did it fail three years ago?”–you can quickly marshal your thoughts in reply to that question. Consequently, you might reply along these lines: “No, it didn’t really fail then. You might remember that Tonia Johnson had proposed this idea and had laid the initial groundwork for implementing it. Then, when she accepted the transfer to the European division, the whole project got put on a back burner because so much else was happening then. I think it merits examining it again. As a matter of fact, I just had an e-mail from Tonia. She’s using these concepts over there in Germany and has had some impressive results.”

3. When appropriate, turn the objection around, if only to stall long enough to gather your thoughts. So if someone objects to a point you’ve made, firmly but diplomatically, you could challenge the person’s assumption. Your turn-the-tables question might be, “Leslie, I appreciate your concern. I’m wondering if you’ve come across any data that would back it up.”

If she says no, she is, in effect, weakening her own position. If she says yes, you can ask her to share the data she has acquired.

4. Anticipate objections and have answers ready in advance. At least a week prior to meeting with those you need to influence, sit down with a trusted friend or colleague. State what you will say sentence by sentence, while sentence by sentence your partner offers an objection or negative comment for you to overcome. True, you cannot prepare for every possible eventuality, but having anticipated the worse and made provisions for it, you will definitely pump up your self-confidence before and during the presentation.

5. Involve others. Sometimes an objection is really the unmasking of a private fear or the seizing of an opportunity to grind an axe in public. In such cases, it may help to ask the other members of the audience how they feel about the objection. Chances are, few hands will go up in support of it, thus affording you the chance to minimize the negative impact of it. On the other hand, if you find there is serious resistance to your proposal, you will have to re-think its worth.

6. Recognize that some issues are too broad to merit investigation at the present moment. While it is not likely, it is possible that you have overlooked a critical aspect that could impinge upon the success of your proposal. A statistically equipped opponent of the plan might attempt to sway others by citing figures you have not seen. Rather than allow such one-upsmanship to continue, assert that you need time to review the figures. Ask the person to meet with you at a later time, continue your presentation, and assure your audience you will update them on the information that has just recently come your way.

7. Employ humor, even if it means repeating a memorized example. This Yogi Berra classic can be adapted, for example, to virtually any situation in which you are coming under attack. Your reply to a criticism or objection might sound like this: “You comment reminds me of a conversation between Yogi Berra and Mrs. Berra. She came in the house one day and when he asked where she’d been, she replied, “I just went to see Dr. Zhivago.”

Alarmed, Yogi demanded to know, ‘What’s wrong with you now?’ Clearly, he knew the world of baseball but was not familiar with other forms of popular entertainment. Sometimes, because we are so consumed with the requirements of our own work, we don’t have time to know what’s happening in other worlds. My research on this proposal convinces me it’s working out there and I’d appreciate the chance to share just a few more figures with you to illustrate how well I think it will work in here.”

8. Let the past prepare you for the future. On occasion, a member of your audience may get so carried away with her own war story that valuable time is wasted. (Additionally, such stories usually move an audience off the track and thus derail the persuasive points you may have made to this point.) If you have ever had that happen to you, you don’t want it to happen again.

One method that invites input, but only the most succinct and relevant input, is a simple timing device that has a shrill sound. Announce before the question-and-answer period begins that you anticipate considerable input and so in fairness to all members, you will set your timer for exactly two minutes. And when it goes off, the person (who will not want to compete with such a sound) will be asked to sit down so the discussion can continue with other points of view.

9. Don’t overlook the power of anecdotes. You can weave them into your actual presentation and then again into your spontaneous remarks as you handle objections. The stories need not be funny or fabricated. In fact, the more poignant they are, they more they strike a common chord, the more likely are they to be remembered and you to be believed.

In a study conducted with MBA students (Martin, J., and Power, M., “Organizational Stories: More Vivid and Persuasive than Quantitative Data.” In B. M. Staw [ed.] Psychological Foundations of Organizational Behavior. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1982, pp. 161-168), researchers attempted to learn what information would be most influential in persuading people that a particular company was committed to avoiding downsizing of the workforce. Four information-sharing techniques were studied: telling a story, using statistics, using the story plus statistics, and sharing a policy statement the company had prepared.

Which technique do you think would be most effective? Chances are, you listed the second one, the combination of story plus statistics. If indeed this was your selection, you did not guess correctly. The study found the MBA students who heard the story alone believed the company’s claim more than did students in any of the other groups. (We actually recommend a combination as well, for facts can be very compelling in moving others toward your viewpoint.)

10. Cite a higher authority or precedent. People are usually influenced by someone who is nationally recognized and respected. (Oprah speaks; the nation reads.) Save some of the power in your argumentative arsenal for the question-and-answer period, when you can overcome objections by referring to an endorsement by a well-respected figure (“Our CEO has asked me to share these details with you”) or to a comparable project being successfully executed elsewhere.

11. Leadership has been described as a liberation of competence. Recognize that objectors probably have a great deal of competence you can tap into in support of your project. When apathy reigns, you will not hear objections. By contrast, when people are concerned enough to discuss your plan, they are giving it some serious thought. It may be that a given objection impresses you with the depth or clarity it reflects. By extension, the objector is probably someone who has given considerable thought to this whole arena and so would no doubt be a good person to have on your team (no matter how hostile her objection may seem at first).

12. Go out on a verbal limb. If you are supremely confident about the worth of your idea, you can offer assurances that represent an iron-clad guarantee for your influencee. To illustrate, we know one consultant who is so confident of the merit of his seminars that he makes this proposal, “If the evaluations do not average 4.5 out of 5, then you do not have to pay me.”

If you have too much to risk to make such an offer, however, you can go out on a different kind of verbal limb by stating an outrageous opinion instead of an outrageous offer. Tom Peters, for example, is known for such remarks: “Every organization should have at least one weirdo on staff.” Or, “If you have gone a whole week without being disobedient, you are doing your organization and yourself a disservice.” Of course, you can always make an informal promise such as, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll bring doughnuts to the staff meeting for a whole year!”

PERSUASION POWER

Fourteen years ago, in an address in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Reverend Desmond  Tutu advised his audience: “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.” Persuasion is a moveable verbal feast. When you are seated at its metaphoric table, notice what and how others are “eating.”

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