Friday, July 15, 2011

Persuasion and Persuasive Speaking: Human Characteristics that Affect It (Continuation of a Series)

Please see above (more recent posts) for the preceding parts of the lecture.
We must begin with the obvious.  Persuasion is the successful attempt to change.  Persuaders are often termed “change agents.”  Many of us are uncomfortable with change, in two ways.  First, change is stressful for anyone.  In fact, much of our stress can be traced to forced or chosen changes in our diets, lifestyles, routines, or relationships.  So, we just don’t like to or want to change.  Second, some of us feel that asking other persons to change is saying, “There is something wrong with you” or “I think I’m better than you.”

Both of these extremes are understandable but unnecessary.  Presenting another person with reasons to change is not disrespecting that person or claiming superiority.  And allowing the stress of change to keep us from change is unwise.  But if you are going to ask another person to change—either in belief, opinion, behavior, buying habits, or lifestyle—you must understand what you are asking—for that person to undergo the very real stress of change.

For example, if you are trying to sell a new office copier system to the office manager of a one-hundred-employee company, what are you asking of that office manager?  Put yourself in his or her shoes.  Employees will have to be trained.  Budgets will have to be adjusted.  Complaints about changing the system (“I liked it the way it was!”) will have to be fielded.   Different numbers will have to be called for servicing the copiers, etc. etc.  It might seem perfectly reasonable, based on the price, the service contract, the productivity, or the ease of use for the office manager to purchase the new copiers, but the manager is seeing it from a different perspective. 

This is not to discourage sales representatives!  It’s only an example of how the more you know about persuasion theory and how listeners receive persuasion—or don’t receive it—can help you in any number of ways. 

A second basic principle of persuasion is that the adaptation to change often takes time.  True change as the result of persuasion is not a quick, overnight, spur of the moment incident.  As we will see, so much of change is based on relationship as much as on logic, and it takes a while to build good relationships with customers or clients.  Many businesses attract customers quickly because of low prices or gimmicks, but they also meet with short-term success.

Third, the reasons we don’t change are as important as the reasons we should change.  Do you know someone who won’t wear his or her seatbelt no matter how much you argue with them?  The good reasons to wear one don’t outweigh, in his or her mind, the reasons why he or she doesn’t.  This person has not heard the information that refutes his or her reasons (or is just very stubborn!)   

Fourth, the human mind has certain mechanisms to protect itself from change.  Some of these are reasonable, others are questionable, but they work to keep us from being tossed around by every idea, product, or appeal that we encounter.

The first is selectivity.  James McCroskey characterizes our natural bent to selectivity in four ways:
1.    selective exposure
2.    selective attention
3.    selective perception (or interpretation)
4.    selective recall

In short, we only expose ourselves (in general terms, of course; there are always exceptions to the general patterns of human behavior) to those messages that we already believe or accept; when exposed to them, we tend to focus on what fits our patterns; we often interpret or change messages or images to fit our previous patterns of belief, attitude, or behavior; and finally, our memories are very inefficient at remembering what is inconsistent with our already-held worldviews.  Again, this is not to say that persuasion is impossible.  We can get past these four filters of selectivity.  For example, how can we expose people to ideas or products that they would not normally see, or would just overlook?  How can we be sure listeners or viewers don’t misinterpret?  And recall is often helped by repetition (especially over a period of time), jingles, music, distinct images, and humor. 

A second way we steel ourselves against persuasion has to do with our self-perception.  Robert Burns, the Scottish poet of the 19th century, wrote:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:

In regular English:  O would some Power give us the gift/To see ourselves as others see us!/It would free us from many a blunder and foolish notion!

But we don’t see ourselves as others do!  First, we all fall prey to the fundamental attribution error.   [Go back to the lecture on interpersonal communication.]  If I succeed at something, I’m likely to credit (or attribute) it to my skill, wisdom, or work ethic—things I control.  If someone else succeeds, I’m like to attribute it to luck or circumstance or their connections—things they don’t control.  If I fail, the opposite happens—it’s bad luck; if someone else fails, it was due to poor choices! Of course, it’s not absolute—no human behavior is—but it is common.

We also see ourselves as atypical.  “I’m different, I’m not like everyone else!”  In fact, our seeing ourselves as atypical is why someone we might consider a redneck can laugh at redneck jokes.   We differentiate, we see ourselves as an individual who doesn’t fit the mold. 

We also see ourselves as rational.  We do what we do for good reasons, reasons that make sense to us.  The human ability to rationalize and defend one’s views and behavior is remarkable; it is even more remarkable when we see how irrational behavior can be. 

Additionally, we reason from the knowledge we have at hand.  Some people will buy a car only after reading every Consumer Reports and Car and Drive Magazine they can find, but most of us base our car-buying decisions on far less evidence—what we have at hand.  Of course, the Internet has helped that, because information is so available, but there’s so much information that we can’t reasonable look at all of it.  We might stop when we find enough information that backs up our original decision!  For example, I’d like to go to a movie tonight after I finish this lecture.  If I go see “We Are Marshall,” it’s because I used to live in that area and had friends at Marshall University.  I like the actors Matthew Fox and Matthew McConaughey.  I’m not going to read ten movie reviews to find out if it’s worth my time.   

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