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  • Writer's pictureJames Purvis

Persuade People to Do ANYTHING You Want

What if you could persuade people to do anything that you wanted them to do? Wouldn't that be just about the greatest super power you could have in business(especially if you are a sales rep)? After some extensive research, I have found some interesting theories around this topic I thought I would share. My goal is that after you read this article, you will have a different perspective on persuasion and better understand the foundation for which it comes from. Ultimately, these findings should provide you with a much better approach to persuasion and get you to more "yes's" in your career.

It all starts with Abraham Maslow

Studies have shown that Maslow's hierarchy of needs has some correlation as to why people are persuaded to do certain things. Now, before you go digging into your old notes from your freshman year college, let's see if I can bring some of this back to life and set the premise for the discussion. Maslow proposed this theory in his paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation" back in 1943. Maslow's hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid (see below) with the more basic needs displayed at the bottom. The idea is that when one need is fulfilled, a person seeks to fulfill the next one and so on.

Maslow Hiearchy of Needs

Let's quickly break these 5 elements down:

  1. Biological and Physiological Needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

  2. Safety Needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc.

  3. Love and Belongingness Needs - friendship, intimacy, affection and love, - from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.

  4. Esteem Needs - self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.

  5. Self-Actualization Needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

Maslow has it all right. Without essentials like shelter, food, water, and safety, we are pretty much stuck with nowhere to go. Until these needs are met, we don't have the ability to get to the level of self actualization. Once we have the essentials (basic needs), we next seek to build relationships and strive for a sense of achievement (psychological needs)and work towards reaching our fullest potential (self-fulfillment).

Let's shift these thoughts towards business. I researched author Christine Comaford who is an expert on the subject of persuasion. She has found that safety, belonging, and esteem have incredible value for our everyday work and our creative lives. She states:

"Without these three essential keys a person cannot perform, innovate, be emotionally engaged, agree, or move forward …The more we have of (these three keys) the greater the success of the company, the relationship, the family, the team, the individual." - Christine Comaford

When we are doing business deals (or negotiating with our spouse), our mission should be to target the psychological needs within Maslow's hierarchy. Help the person(s) you are trying to "persuade" to get to the highest level of the pyramid (self actualization) and you will earn an insurmountable level of trust and be able to persuade them more effectively. Comaford believes in three influencing phrases to address the psychological needs and create safety, belonging, and mattering within individuals:

  1. “What if.” When you use this preface to an idea/suggestion, you remove ego and reduce emotion. You’re curious - not forcing a position.

  2. “I need your help.” We call this a “dom-sub swap.” When the dominant person uses it, they enroll and engage the subordinate person resulting in a temporary transfer of power. This is especially effective when you want a person to change their behavior or take on more responsibility.

  3. “Would it be helpful if.” When someone is in fight/flight/freeze, use this phrase to offer a solution. This will help them to shift focus from the problem to a possible course of action or positive outcome.

"Every employee, every family member, can be happier and more effective if you simply identify which of these three needs are programmed into their subconscious so powerfully that they literally crave them." - Comaford

Find the psychological need that is most important to the person you are trying to persuade and drive home how you can help them fulfill that requirement.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

It wouldn't be appropriate to discuss the art of persuasion without bringing up Dale Carnegie's best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. If you haven't read this book, you need to. If you have read it, read it again. This book drives home the importance of positive thinking and will increase your popularity, earning power, and potential in all aspects in life. Conversely, it will help you persuade others.

Below is a highly condensed summary of Carnegie's book. As you read through the highlights, think about how the content could help you in persuading others. Think about how it relates to Maslow's hierarchy and how it could be used to address someones psychological needs.

How to Win Friends & Influence People

Part One: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  • Don't criticize, condemn or complain.

  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.

  • Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Part Two: Six ways to make people like you

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people.

  2. Smile.

  3. Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

  5. Talk in terms of the other person's interests.

  6. Make the other person feel important - and do it sincerely.

Part Three: Win people to your way of thinking

  • The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.

  • Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say, "You're wrong."

  • If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

  • Begin in a friendly way.

  • Get the other person saying "yes, yes" immediately.

  • Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.

  • Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.

  • Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.

  • Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.

  • Appeal to the nobler motives.

  • Dramatize your ideas.

  • Throw down a challenge.

Part Four: Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

A leader's job often includes changing your people's attitudes and behavior. Some suggestions to accomplish this:

  • Begin with praise and honest appreciation.

  • Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.

  • Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.

  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.

  • Let the other person save face.

  • Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise."

  • Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.

  • Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.

  • Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.

Persuasion Techniques:

Create A Need

Kendra Cherry is a psychology expert and she defines persuasion like this:

"The ultimate goal of persuasion is to convince the target to internalize the persuasive argument and adopt this new attitude as a part of their core belief system." - Kendra Cherry

Cherry ties her persuasion techniques back to Maslow's theory as well (shocker!). One method of persuasion involves creating a need or appealing to a previously exiting need. This type of persuasion appeals to a person's fundamental needs for shelter, love, self-esteem and self-actualization. Learn the person's core belief system and tie-in the psychological need that is most important to them in this particular situation. Do they need to feel safe and secure? Are they looking for a sense of belongingness? Perhaps there is an ultimate goal they are striving to achieve? Hone in on the element that matters most and work towards creating a need that your offering fulfills.

Appeal to Social Needs

Another very effective persuasive method appeals to the need to be popular, prestigious or similar to others. Television commercials provide many examples of this type of persuasion, where viewers are encouraged to purchase items so they can be like everyone else or be like a well-known or well-respected person. Remember the "Be Like Mike" Gatorade commercials of the 90's? These marketers were obviously targeting thebelongingness section of the pyramid.

Robert Cialdini wrote a famous book called, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In his book, Cialdini outlines six principles of persuasion and one of the common threads from Cialdini’s list is that of social. The principles of liking, authority, and social proof all deal with relationships with others:

"We are persuaded by those we like, by those whom we deem to be authority figures, and by the general population." - Cialdini

This is why companies post on their homepage the logos of other organizations who use their product (social proof) and the reason we put all of our credentials & experience on our LinkedIn profile (authority).

Here is a deeper look into the six common techniques of influence that you’ll come across either explicitly or implicitly (from Cialdini, 2001):

The Psychology of Persuasion

  1. Liking: It’s much easier to influence someone who likes you. Successful influencers try to flatter and uncover similarities in order to build attraction.

  2. Social Proof. People like to follow one another, so influencers imply the herd is moving the same way.

  3. Consistency. Most people prefer to keep their word. If people make a commitment, particularly if it’s out loud or in writing, they are much more likely to keep it. Influencers should try to gain verbal or written commitments.

  4. Scarcity. Even when companies have warehouses full of a product, they still advertise using time-limited offers that emphasise scarcity. People want what they can’t have, or at least what might be running short.

  5. Authority. People are strongly influenced by experts. Successful influencers flaunt their knowledge to establish their expertise.

  6. Reciprocity. Give something to get something. When people feel indebted to you they are more likely to agree to what you want. This feeling could arise from something as simple as a compliment.​

Tell A Story

People love to hear stories. This is what makes the news and movies so popular. It's what every great public speaker uses as a tool to drive home a key point in their speech. It is also a great lever for persuasion. In the famous book, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath talk about the three stickiest and most memorable story plots:

  1. The Challenge Plot: A story of the underdog, rags to riches or sheer willpower triumphing over adversity; think of the movie Rudy

  2. The Connection Plot: A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap, whether racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic or otherwise; think of the filmThe Blind Side​

  3. The Creativity Plot: A story that involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle or attacking a problem in an innovative way; think of Thomas Edison with the invention of the light bulb​

A story creates a sense of connection and often provides context that we can directly relate to. When you attach an emotional response like this, a sense of trust and partnership is built. Try telling a story next time you are trying to influence someone. Find what psychological need they are looking for and tie-in a story using one of the 3 plots.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Power of Storytelling in Business

Lastly...Try Swearing

Really? Yea, actually there is some persuasiveness behind swearing. You do run the risk of losing credibility and appearing unprofessional but it can pay dividends if used correctly.

To see whether swearing can help change attitudes, Scherer and Sagarin (2006) divided 88 participants into three groups to watch one of three slightly different speeches. The only difference between the speeches was that one contained a mild swear word at the start:

“…lowering of tuition is not only a great idea, but damn it, also the most reasonable one for all parties involved.”

The second speech contained the ‘damn it’ at the end and the third had neither. When participants’ attitudes were measured, they were most influenced by the speeches with the mild obscenity included, either at the beginning or the end. Crazy, huh? Try it out.


There are many techniques and theories around persuasion out there. But what I found in my research is that there seems to always be some sort of correlation that ties back to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Next time you are trying to influence someone, take a step back and think, "What psychological need is this person trying to achieve." Ask the person open-ended questions to uncover what this need really ties back to (as it relates to the hierarchy) and zero in on how your offering help's them fulfill this desire. Sure, your product or idea can help them save time & money, but does saving time & money make them feel safe? Have a sense of belongingness? Build their confidence?

Find this article interesting? Check out more blog posts by James Purvis



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