As most of you know, many of the most effective persuasion and consensus building skills are counterintuitive. Nowhere is this more important than when we are feeling strong negative emotions such as anger, indignation or resentment. The words that tend to pop out of our mouths at those moments often cause the other person to escalate the very behavior we object to.
It’s important, therefore, to cultivate a mechanism for shifting away from those natural, understandable, but counterproductive words and viewing the situation in a more intellectual manner—thinking rather than reacting knee jerk, and more specifically, thinking about the most effective way to persuade the other person or build consensus.
The Harvard Negotiation Project literature recommends imagining yourself in a balcony looking down on the scene of the interaction between yourself and the other person. You can either see yourself in the balcony, as if you were a third party, or you can visualize the scene of the interaction from above, as if you were above it in the balcony, whichever works better for you. Can you sense how this viewpoint shifts you from those knee jerk words to an intellectual consideration of the matter?
If the balcony image doesn’t grab you, there are many other options. One of my clients prefers to think of herself in a helicopter flying over the scene of the interaction. You can imagine the scene on a laboratory slide you are viewing through a microscope, or on a table as if you are scrutinizing it with a magnifying glass.
I recently came up with another option I have decided to cultivate for myself. I had been reflecting on the fact that, in the past, any time I have allowed the intuitively angry words to pop out of my mouth, or even engaged in nonverbal, or passive, aggression by giving the other person the cold shoulder, I never felt good afterward. On the contrary, I usually felt worse. Therefore, I was working on a way to remember to ask myself, “What would make you feel better, longer?” before speaking.
A little while later, I watched an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation featuring one of my favorite characters, Data the android. Data had been assigned to work with a research scientist who hated him. She knew that Data’s “brother” (a prototype android) had betrayed an entire colony of people, indirectly causing the death of her son. This scientist went out of her way to deal Data insults and contempt at every opportunity.
However, because Data had not yet acquired his emotion chip, all of the scientist’s insults rolled right off his back. He continued to communicate with her in a pleasant, but unemotional, manner. I can’t describe his vocal tones adequately in writing, but suggest that, if you are not familiar with the character of Data, you make a point of watching an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation and pay attention to the way Data speaks. The series is rerun regularly on BBC America.
Data’s manner clicked immediately with my search for a mental image to match the question I had been mulling over. I decided that, when tempted to strike out in anger or indignation, I can imagine myself asking Data, “What would make me feel better, longer?” I can then hear Data’s voice modeling better words and delivering them in an ideal tone of voice.
What image will you cultivate to help you shift from natural, understandable, but counterproductive words and tones to an effective persuasive manner?