September 3, 2021 / Esther Choy

African American female doctor and her senior patient using digital tablet while wearing protective face mask at hospital hallway.

A couple of weeks ago, I was riding my bike along Lake Michigan with my husband, when I toppled right over and fractured my foot. (Ouch.)

Can the doctor persuade Esther to wear a cast?

I know I have two fractures in my ankle because I went to see a specialist—a highly-rated, experienced doctor I chose for his expertise. He discussed my condition and then proceeded to tell me I needed a cast. I panicked a little, because a cast couldn’t get wet, and swimming is a very important routine in my daily life. I began to ask him several questions, trying to figure out how unavoidable a cast truly was. 

But the doctor quickly cut me off. He immediately asserted his expert status and dismissed my hesitation. He didn’t let me explain my reservations or ask my questions, and he wasn’t curious about my concerns. Under his judgmental, dismissive manner, I shut down. I stopped telling him what’s important to me.

It’s a week later…and guess what? I’m not wearing a cast. And I went swimming this morning. 

Can’t miss my daily swim!

When we are trying to persuade others—of the need for medical treatment or changes at work or anything else important—our attitude influences their receptivity. Often, we point our fingers at others’ inability to be objective or open-minded when we actually need to check our own attitudes and approach to persuade others.  

Consider this piece from The New York Times which argues “we have taken the…ruggedly individualistic tactic of making this about personal responsibility” in shaming and browbeating those who remain unvaccinated against Covid-19. When those vaccinated adopt a moralistic, superior posture, they may forget that those who are unvaccinated may struggle with getting time off work, getting transportation to a vaccination site over 15 minutes’ drive from their homes, or may need to place higher priority on putting food on the table tonight. People have individual medical histories or challenges we may not consider. This Wall Street Journal commentary even reminds us of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study which took place over 40 years in the author’s state and still lives on in many people’s minds.

The bottom line is a dismissive, judgmental attitude is not persuasive. What should we do instead to persuade effectively?

1. Acknowledge others.

To persuade, you must gain trust. To gain trust, you must prove you have heard and care about the other person’s reasoning. You cannot skip this step!

Our Acknowledge, Aspire, Inspire framework centers on this. Before telling your own persuasive story, you must first listen to the other’s story. Actively listen. Listen to understand, and show your understanding by repeating back what you have heard and then building on it.

As you seek to persuade, one excellent mechanism to use is to ask detail-seeking or clarifying questions. In the example of vaccines, I might ask “What is the difference between full FDA approval and emergency approval?” The illusion of explanatory depth is a phenomenon where we believe we have deeper understanding of our beliefs than we actually do; when we are asked to explain them in greater detail, we find our own knowledge gaps. Seeing these gaps makes us more open to discussion. 

If my doctor had first listened to my concerns about wearing a cast, he would have been much more effective in getting me to consider and maybe even get one, as he would know exactly why I was hesitant and could address my true reasoning instead of shutting me down.

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2. Connect with the security of unity.

Robert Cialdini has recently updated the principles of influence from his acclaimed book Influence: Science and Practice to include a seventh: unity. He argues that a shared identity between the person persuading and the person being persuaded makes the latter more open to influence. 

What is a shared identity? It might be that we share the same profession, the same politics, or the same gender, race, or religion. We might cheer on the same sports team or both be mothers or Chicago natives. A shared identity taps into something tribal and affects our decision-making. Note that the shared identity has to be something meaningful; it can’t be that we both had a cup of tea this afternoon.

What do you do when you seemingly come from different “tribes,” though? We all belong to many identity groups based on our histories, our demographics, our preferences, and our circumstances. You can find a commonality with the person you are speaking with, and you can connect with everyone by sharing intersecting stories.

3. Social support is key.

My 82-year-old mother lives in Hong Kong, where at one point, she was among the over two-thirds of people in her age group who had not been vaccinated against Covid-19. Though there were abundant resources available, most people her age—including her friends—were not getting vaccinated. 

What could I do to convince her? I was not going to frighten or talk down to my mother. What I did was let her know, first, that my father-in-law had qualified for vaccination and had gotten “the jab.” Then, my mother-in-law did. Soon, my husband and I did. Then, my friends in Hong Kong, whom my mother had known since we were very young, got vaccinated. As each of us known to my mother got vaccinated and did not experience adverse effects, it increased her confidence and calmed her fears. I kept telling her these stories. 

Soon, my mother was the one getting the jab and persuading her friends that it was safe.

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This represents another of Cialdini’s principles, social proof. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that the most influential reason vaccine-hesitant Americans have been getting vaccinated has been seeing friends and family safe after getting it.

The common thread in acknowledgement, connection, and social support is trust. You cannot persuade without winning trust. From there, you can invite your audience—whether it’s your mother, your patient, your leadership team, or hundreds of employees—to envision the inspiring alternative.

How do you create a culture of trust? Start with leadership storytelling. Contact us to learn more.

Related Articles

Persuading Audiences That Think They Know Everything

Storytelling Can Persuade People To Take COVID-19 Precautions


Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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