The Power of Gentle Persuasion

We have grown accustom to seeing persuasion depicted loudly on television and movies: the lawyer forcefully making their final arguments in front of the jury. The Marvel hero rallying their team against the evil enemy. Or, the football coach giving the impassioned speech just prior to the big game. All these depictions are powerful, inspirational, and motivational. 

But, what if they give a false picture of the power of tone in persuasion? Is a louder tone, even a more confident louder tone, more persuasive? 

This question went through my mind recently while reading Dr. Vanessa Bohns’ article outlining her research on persuasion in the Wall Street Journal. Her study uncovered that people often shout because they lack confidence in their ability to influence others. I will quote Dr. Bohns at length: 

“Overcompensating for lack of confidence in our proficiency as influencers leads us to use overly assertive language, which is actually an ineffective tool for persuasion. We shout because we don’t think people will listen to us otherwise. As a result, we are overly assertive when trying to get our message out there, despite the fact that our arguments, advice and appeals would actually be more effective if we made them a little gentler.” 

Did you catch that last line? Despite the way arguments, and to a certain extent, dramatic speeches are portrayed, research indicates that “advice and appeals would actually be more effective if we made them a little gentler.” This is counterintuitive to our fight or flight. It is also takes more confidence in our ideas to cultivate a spirit of gentleness. 

Think about it: Who is more confident in their ideas, the politician shouting, or the one that softly explains their ideas? Does the latter even exist anymore? 

Or, let’s make this more personal. When are you more confident in your own ideas? Is it when you are shouting or, is it when you can gently articulate them? 

The truth about me is that I often attempt to cover up my own insecurities through loud thoughts. My worse moments as a leader have been when I have raised my voice in a meeting to make a point. I suppose there might be a time or place for it, but it is rare. Research seems to indicate that it is ineffective in terms of persuasion. 

I have discovered that to be someone worth following, I do not to need to cover up my inadequacies. In fact, letting them be displayed ironically makes me someone worth following. I have also discovered that I do not need to shout to make a point. 

The world is filled with loud people that no one wants to follow. You do not need to be one of them and neither do I. You do, however, need to be true. I suppose the word for this is really authentic, but that feels like it gets thrown out too frequently to mean what it used to mean. By true, I mean you have to be real. You have to be genuine. You have to talk like you normally talk. 

By being real, you can be gentle because you do not have to have all the answers. Not having all the answers means that you can have a conversation rather than a shouting match. This does not give you a pass from speaking boldly and clearly. It just means that you do so with a gentle tone. The “what” part of the message may even be the same, it is just delivered differently.  

By keeping a softer tone you still stay open to feedback because you are speaking soft enough to still listen, and comprehend, the other vantage point. This will make you a better leader and a better person. 

For persuasive gentleness is not some gimmick to be used to persuade others. Rather, it is a trait of a decent, confident, human being. A trait this world is missing. So, try and adopt it and become a human being others will follow and respect.