A Buddhist Twist on Persuasion

by Chris St. Hilaire, WowOWow.com, Oct 11, 2010

Author and strategist Chris St. Hilaire reveals six ways to unify people for a common goal.

Long Beach, California (USA) -- I’m on a mission to change the way the world views persuasion. Despite the fact that we use persuasion in nearly every conversation – at work, at home, with friends, in stores and restaurants – this basic communication skill has gotten a bad rap.

Say "persuasion" and people think "used-car salesman." Yet whether you’re trying to convince your teenager to drive safely, your spouse to take a few days off work or your colleagues to try your latest strategy, you’re using persuasion all the time. And chances are, you’d like to be better at it.

True persuasion isn’t about arm-twisting or manipulating. It’s not about tricking people or bullying them. It’s about unifying people around a goal. Unity is the key, and the way to get there is by looking Eastward, toward the Buddhist concept of the ego. According to Eastern thought, inside each of us is a constant struggle between the ego that says, "I’m different. I’m special," and the spirit that knows we’re all the same. The ego wants to separate from others; it’s fear-based. The spirit wants to unite. When you’re trying to persuade, coming from the spirit – from a place of unity and inclusion – is the most effective approach. The following six New Persuasion strategies will make your listeners feel safe, included and eager to unify around your goal.

Put your ego aside and focus on the egos of others. In order to persuade, you must first make sure your listeners feel safe and included. So use the first five minutes of any meeting to put others at ease, not to impress them with your own wonderfulness. If it’s your coworkers, thank them for taking a few minutes out of their hectic day to meet with you. Ditto if you’re calling on a new client – and mention something positive about their organization or their personal accomplishments. (You’ve researched them first, of course). That teenager? Bring food. No one’s too old for ice cream, and they can’t argue if their mouth is full. At least for a few minutes.

Focus on the goal, and let others define it. Confusion and discord make people feel anxious and threatened, and unity makes them feel safe. People unify around a goal. Positive persuasion means letting the goal evolve from the group, not simply presenting your idea. To do this, ask, "What’s our goal? What are we trying to accomplish here today?" Let people give you the answer, and repeat what they say to make sure you’re all on the same page. Give people choices (first making sure you’ll be comfortable with either choice). Use their points to support your goal, and tie points together using other people’s suggestions. Finally, boil the goal down into one or two simple sentences that everyone agrees with. Now they’re invested – it’s their goal too.

Aim for the undecideds. Most people think of "undecideds" in terms of politics, where undecided voters often make the critical difference. There are undecideds in every group, and they are always important when you’re aiming to persuade. Undecideds typically see both sides of an issue to a fault – they truly cannot make up their minds. Winning them over requires subtlety. You can’t just go around the room urging the undecideds to take a stand. Instead, you must let them witness the action from the sidelines, especially the way you handle people who disagree with you. The more inclusive and evenhanded you are when dealing with your opposition, the more the undecideds will trust you because they’ll see that you can listen to all sides. You may never win the support of every single person in the room, but you don’t need to. You just need to win enough undecideds to sway the majority in your direction.

Use third-party validation to bolster your plan. If you’re making a presentation, third-party validation will help your listeners overcome their natural fear of being the first to support your idea. The validation can come from a colleague ("Marissa over in sales was especially excited about this product"), clients ("The reason we have so many good quotes on our website is …") or statistics ("According to the Times, this sort of promotion can increase sales by 25 percent in the first month"). Risk makes people feel vulnerable, and third-party validation makes your idea less risky.

Don’t say no; say, "Let’s try this." There are plenty of bad ideas out there, often bursting from the lips of your colleagues or clients (or family). Understandably, none of them wants to hear you say no. No is a rejection. It makes people feel threatened. Buddhism advises never to swim against the tide, but instead, to redirect it. Rather than nixing a bad idea, make sure you and the other person agree on the goal, then suggest other ways to achieve it. Add to their plan, don’t destroy it. If your client wants you to run an ad touting exaggerated claims for his product, don’t say no. Instead suggest an ad with quotes from satisfied customers. If your husband wants to have a party and you can’t stand the thought of all that prep, redirect the idea and add to it. First, agree with the goal ("I’d love to see those guys!"). Then, redirect it ("How about if we all go to the game together that night?"). Open up the discussion and keep adding ideas until you find one you both like.

The New Persuasion is all about recognizing that other people have egos, points of view and great ideas that will make your idea stronger. Learn to persuade through unifying, and your life will become less stressful and a whole lot more satisfying.


Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of 27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians. The first marketer in the courtroom, Chris is the founder of Jury Impact, a national jury consulting firm, and M4 Strategies, a California-based messaging firm that specializes in influencing public policy. Chris’s persuasion advice has been featured in Investor’s Business Daily, and he has provided legal and political commentary in USA Today and on national news broadcasts, including NBC, C-SPAN and Fox News. He lives in Long Beach, California. Visit the book’s website by clicking here. Author photo by Jason Wallis.

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