Convincing Powerful People to Change Their Mind - Can it Be Done?

Author: Dirk Schlimm, Partner, Jenoir International | | Categories: Collaboration , Conflict , IPP 2.0 , Negotiation , Teamwork

Blog by Jenoir International Inc

Since writing Influencing Powerful People (IPP) 10 years ago, I have become somewhat of a “conversation coach.” I teach “difficult conversations in the boardroom” at the University of Toronto’s Directors Education program, I act as a sounding board and advisor for those getting ready for a difficult conversation with a powerful person, and I have these conversations myself (a good reminder of how hard this really is). Despite all my exposure to the topic, I have not found the “three sure-fire steps to win every argument.” But I have learned more about it: I have seen the difference between what others and I thought would happen and what did happen; I had the opportunity to debrief (sometimes in great detail) on what worked well, what was insufficient and what backfired; and I got to reflect on what should be a lesson for next time. Most of what I wrote in “IPP Rule 15” remains valid, but here are some insights that stand out after careful inspection, reflection, and application. Most of this takes the perspective of an executive “talking to the boss.” For a recent review of persuasion techniques from an external advisor perspective please have a look at Lothar Determann’s earlier contribution to our IPP 2.0 series.

Use a track record of results to increase credibility

Coming across as convincing requires more than presenting a strong argument in a compelling manner. In fact, one common frustration is that despite making a good case the powerful person just does not move off their position. This observation is a reminder that decision processes are just as “non rational” as they are rational. Of course, few people will admit to that (most powerful people don’t see themselves as emotional, biased, or idiosyncratic), and it explains why reason and logical presentation prevail much less often than we’d expect. That’s why marketers build emotional connections with prospective buyers just as much as they list product benefits. The brutal reality is this: Your credibility and ability to convince are influenced by factors that are not connected with the matter at issue - at least not directly. In a corporate setting, one of those factors is your track record of producing results. Therefore, if you want to increase your persuasiveness, focus your efforts on producing a tangible result, and ideally a string of them, rather than (just) polishing that PowerPoint presentation. If you are new to a company, consider getting something done before having an opinion. Results matter and they are persuasion currency. Once you have them, however, be sure to use them and consider contributing your thoughts and strategic input to a broader range of issues.

Work to become a “recognized expert”

When speaking with powerful people, or any audience for that matter, it is good advice to (only) talk about what you know and know what you are talking about. This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people with little subject matter knowledge will feel free to make their views known. Thankfully, powerful people know a lightweight when they see one, and this is why building and cultivating your expert persona can make such a difference. It is, however, one thing to have expertise, and another to be recognized for it. For example, as a “recognized” expert you should have a well thought out opinion on the two or three trends that will transform an industry, on the performance/buying criteria that really matter in your industry, or on the critical risk factors that impact a proposed venture. You must reduce a matter to the salient points, and you must speak clearly and with confidence. You can get better at this by focusing on the area for which you have a passion and where you can speak from experience and direct observation. In addition to company meetings, you can develop outlets such as industry panels, podcasts, blogs or even writing a book. Once you start finding your expert voice you can also start mastering the art of respectful disagreement - no one likes a know-it-all. Becoming a “recognized expert” will help you to be more convincing and people will start seeking out your opinion. But it is not something that happens overnight: You plan for it, and you work on it.

Bring (your own) graphs and charts

Working on your track record and recognized expert status are longer term endeavors. But what if you are looking for a credibility boost shorter term? Start by considering graphs and charts. While not new, technology has made it easier to “create and bring your own.” In the past one often had to engage the corporate communication department or an external company to design and administer a survey. Today, this can be easily done with a poll in a zoom call or a google feedback form. Depending on the issue you may still want to get expert help, but a do-it-yourself poll or survey will be an immediate and significant step up from sheer opinion. This can be especially useful with things that are the subject of strong opinion and emotion (a popular one at the moment is working remotely/from home - one of those “everyone's an expert” topics). Just be sure you remain open to feedback that goes against your own biases and preferences. You can also look for convincing graphs and charts from a reputable source - I recently used an Economist chart on polarized global trade politics with good results. In the past many such charts would have been the domaine réservé of big name consultants but now - thankfully - McKinsey and others share them on a weekly basis.

Engage external experts

Getting an expert to bolster your recommended course of action is an age-old strategy; and it certainly remains a valid one. There are a couple of things to consider, however. Let’s take the example of external legal counsel. It goes without say, that you need someone with relevant experience and a solid reputation. Especially in dicey issues, a higher profile is typically better but much will depend on the culture of your company and the circumstances. Bringing an absolute “superstar”, for example, can backfire if the issue doesn’t warrant it or the culture goes against rock star types. You also need someone who is willing to give advice based on the law and the situation, rather than providing a mere legal assessment and deferring business issues to the businesspeople (i.e., someone who is willing to say “here is what I would do”). Most importantly, you need someone who does not crack under pressure - someone who will not change their advice based on what they think the powerful person wants to hear so they can keep the client. But, equally, make sure you practice what you preach: be sure you listen to their advice carefully and be willing to change your own mind if warranted.

Don’t forget: It’s a process

A difficult conversation with a powerful person requires preparation. They will come with a barrage of probing questions, and you will do well to anticipate as many as you can. Some of these questions will be designed to test whether you know your stuff and have done your homework. Others will seek a clever workaround and yet others will open a new perspective, one which you previously may not have thought about. Remember that your goal is not to win the argument right then and there. Most often the expectation to win the day is too ambitious especially if you propose a controversial course of action (remember that much of decision making is emotional and the appeal of logic is limited). Thus, the goal may just be to forestall a hard NO and to live and fight another day. Especially if you do not have answers for all the questions it may be OK to say, “you raise some good questions; let me give this some more thought and come back.” This admission accomplishes two things: (1) The question from a smart powerful person may indeed require additional consideration - you may have missed something; and (2) you show that you have an open mind and that you are taking them and their questions seriously (which you most certainly should anyway). You can then come back - after reconfirming with the expert, after getting better graphs and charts, or after finding additional convincing arguments. Questions are a gift - they provide the opportunity to find out exactly why your counterpart is opposed to your ideas and what you might be able to do about it.

Get them to experience the problem

I am leaving the best for last. Getting the powerful person to experience the problem was my main advice 10 year ago and it remains so today. Ever since observing, consistently and intentionally, why and how powerful people will change their mind and come around to someone else’s thinking I remain convinced this is the strongest point. Getting them to experience the problem can be achieved in a number of ways (example: join the customer, employee, union etc. meeting). Here is one example that happened to me. One of my coaching clients was an executive leading a subsidiary in India. The CEO of the company had asked me to coach him on the need for accurate forecasts. The assumption was that he did not understand the expected rigor and was just too laid back. So, I made my way to Chennai and provided my lecture on proper sales forecasting, how it provides the basis for production planning, sets owner/board/management expectations, builds credibility, and the like. What I learned on the ground, however, was that in the concrete market reality it was almost impossible to create a reliable prediction of who will buy what and when (at least in the particular industry). There were just too many vagaries and business simply didn’t work that way; and I got to experience this reality myself. The local executive did a masterful job changing my perception and deployed me as an envoy back to head office. I am certain that this change of perception would not have happened, had I not made the trip, spent time with people on the ground, and heard about and personally experienced myself some of the many factors that can knock out a “forecast.” It was the experience that changed my perception.

Stay realistic

Convincing or “helping” powerful people to change their mind is an art. Yes, there are some good principles and practices, but much will depend on the person and the issue you are dealing with. Often, you will not succeed. The point is that “lack of success” doesn’t mean you haven’t done a good job - it means that you tried something which is very hard to do and that comes with uncertain outcomes - or to use the earlier point, you cannot “forecast” it. The key is to learn from every interaction and get better. What worked and why? What didn’t work and why? What will you do differently next time? What can you do to strengthen your credibility in general? And finally remember one thing: Maybe your idea wasn't as great as you thought and maybe the powerful person did know more. Who knows, not following your recommendation may just have been the better decision after all.

This blog is designed to inform readers and stimulate discussion. It is shared with the understanding that it does not constitute legal, accounting, securities, or other professional advice to be relied upon. If such advice is needed, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. As we are critically thinking human beings, the views expressed in the blog are always subject to change, revision, and rethinking at any time. The author(s) and Jenoir® International are not to be held responsible for misuse, reuse, recycled and cited and/or uncited copies of content within this blog by others.