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Arran Heal


Managing Director

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The art of persuasion: the new top skill needed by employees?


What’s now the most desirable quality among employees? According to the latest global LinkedIn data on job opportunities and what employers are asking for from applicants, it’s the skill of persuasion.

‘Persuasion’, though, is often seen as being more like manipulation and lies. The kind of dark art used by sales people to pressurise customers into doing the irrational. Culturally it’s just uncomfortable.

Persuasion is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do through the use of reason. It’s a skill that’s in demand because it’s essential in so many ways for organisations: for good management, for good client and customer relationships, and for strengthening trust and understanding. And yet, in general, we’re not very good at it.

Essentially, having persuasion skills is about the ability to have good conversations – having ‘conversational intelligence’.

In other words, it’s what an argument is meant to be. Not just two opposing positions where neither side listens or wants to budge; and not people using their authority, threats, coercion to force their side.

Having conversational intelligence means employees are equipped to work better, extending a more positive and constructive influence in everything they do, and making workplaces better places to be. It’s also a set of qualities that can be learned and developed.

So rather than training solely in persuasion or selling, L&D professionals need to be thinking in terms of the bigger picture and the essential qualities that are needed for being a more effective all-round employee.

Conversational intelligence means training that equips people to be more resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views and different people in the workplace:

1. How to face up to difficult conversations

It’s not just about avoiding conflict. Challenging conversations are good for business – for encouraging new perspectives and innovation, and as a basis for a better working environment, better self-awareness, more positivity and a sense of motivation.

Managers need to be trained in how to face up to difficult conversations and deal with them in a constructive way: to actively decide when a conversation is needed – not to be bounced into it by circumstances or in an emotional way, to plan what they want to accomplish: ’what do I need to talk about? what do I really want for myself, for them, for the relationship?’.

2. Learning not to rely on assumptions

Senior staff can fall into the habit of believing their experience means they already have the answers. Development is needed to encourage more open-minded curiosity, to ask exploratory questions and show a meaningful interest in what an employee thinks, believes, fears and wants.

Not only is curiosity a building tool for a strong working relationship building, it also gives employees more information to help with problem-solving. Managers need to understand their version of events is composed of a mix of fact, fiction and assumptions. They therefore need to separate what they know, what they believe, and what they are unsure of, before they come to open their mouth.

Workplace pressures, new routines and use of technology are all acting against the everyday flow of conversations. Businesses want action and efficiency without debate.

3. Getting managers to become role models

People in groups mimic the behaviour of other people. When managers are tight-lipped and appear to be looking to protect their position, their line reports will do the same. So if there’s a problem, managers need to make sure it’s not just about their staff.

It’s usually very easy to see how the other person has contributed to the current difficulties – something they said, or something they did. Harder to spot is our own role. Once we give up the belief that the other person is completely responsible, we can start to see how we’ve added to the confusion and miscommunication.

4. Encourage more conversations

Workplace pressures, new routines and use of technology are all acting against the everyday flow of conversations. Businesses want action and efficiency without debate.

But conversations only improve through being a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event – being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the organisational culture – and organisational development must be encouraged and supported.

Organisations need to learn to use good conversations for persuasion – not to bully or deceive, but to get the most from our human strengths of reasoning.

5. Create a ‘clear air’ culture

The bigger picture is the importance to start by thinking about the values of your firm and the actual behaviours demonstrated by employees. The more aligned the two are, the closer the organisation is getting to an everyday environment where problem-solving is free-flowing and innovation is instinctive.

Beyond soft skills training itself, businesses can support a clear air culture by putting in place a basic framework that looks at what happens to complaints and performance issues and how they are actually handled. Is there a level of consistency and options that helps avoid more formal problems and the potential for resolving matters at the most informal level possible?

People can learn to have situational awareness, curiosity, reflective listening, empathy and self awareness – and use conversations to persuade in mature, intelligent ways.

These skills are more important than ever for working in flatter organisations, without obvious lines of authority, and dependent on the ability of individuals to create their own positive culture.

Organisations need to learn to use good conversations for persuasion – not to bully or deceive, but to get the most from our human strengths of reasoning. If we don’t then there will soon be machines that can. IBM’s Project Debater has already demonstrated that it can beat human debating champions at making persuasive arguments.


Author Profile Picture
Arran Heal

Managing Director

Read more from Arran Heal

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