In the beginning I thought persuasion was a skill. For me, it’s not just some skill you see in a movie and you wish you had it. I have it. And I am grateful for the last decade of experience and for what it thought me: persuasion is not a skill. It is an illusion.

Persuasion is when you let yourself think that because you are so smart and great, someone accepted to do something they normally wouldn’t.

As a startup founder, you get to constantly try to get people to do something you want. Here is what I learned about the actual skills that can help you get there.

It’s not about the right argument

Creating a startup is not like being in a debate club or in a courtroom. Having the best argument and mastering the art of dialectics is among the least useful skills for a founder. As Dale Carnegie says in How to Win Friends and Influence People (the mother of all self-help books), the best way to win an argument is not to have one. More importantly, as a founder, you are not trying to win arguments. You are trying to win hearts.

You mission is to get people to join you on your journey, do something for you or with you, or transact with you. When you catch yourself trying to prove a point, and be right about something, know that you’ve stepped out of your role as a founder. Don’t lie to yourself that you are doing it for something other than your ego.

It’s all about the attitudes

There are many books on persuasion that offer advice on how to flatter people, appeal to emotion, structure what you’ll say, etc. It’s mostly cheap advice that doesn’t work. I know it doesn’t work because I’ve tried it. People see through it. And I say it’s cheap because all of it is very easy to do and doesn’t really compel you to get out of your comfort zone, where all the results are.

Over the last decade I’ve prepared and documented more than 3000 meetings. What I found to (often) be working, is attitude. Not what you say, not how you say it, but rather how you are present — how you show up.

I define attitude as a set of beliefs (about self, the other, the future) and to them associated mental states such as emotions and dispositions for belief and action.

We recognize attitudes of other people and we are strongly influenced by them. I remember noticing it with my late PhD supervisor. When I would come to him with an idea fully confident and proud of myself, he would systematically challenge me. When I would come to him discouraged and hesitant, he would encourage me to pursue the idea I was unsure about. It was probably not a conscious choice, but he adopted an attitude as a function of my attitude. It worked. In fact, this was indeed the best way for him to be useful to me. We did great work together and published more than 30 research papers in prestigious places.

People behave with regards to their roles and with regards to their perception of their place in the world. There is not much you can do about that. However, the role and place in the world only narrow down the choice of possible attitudes but do not dictate a particular one. People will adopt the particular attitude in response to your attitude.

We often just slip into an attitude without thinking. We feel wronged, betrayed and we slip into the attitude of a victim. Or we slip into blaming someone for our misery. If our go-to attitude is to blame ourselves, a good friend is likely to adopt the it’s-not-your-fault sort of attitude. An adversary might adopt the yes-you-suck attitude.

The idea that how we think (cognition), how we feel (emotion) and how we act (behaviour) all interact together is very strong in psychology research and is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In other words, altering one of those three components will likely influence the other two.

Being able to choose an attitude instead of slipping into it automatically means being able to take distance from our thoughts. Not directly believe in the first thing we think. When you take distance (which for me often requires taking absence and even physically going some place else) you can choose the appropriate attitude for different situations.

The right attitude does not guarantee success in every situation. It is more like a necessary condition for getting what you want — if you don’t have it, you’re not getting what you want.

Once you start getting aware of your attitude and choosing the right one, you’ll quickly see that persuasion is not an issue. It’s quite straightforward in fact.

If you’re proving your point, you’ll push people to want to prove you wrong. If you are the best, you’ll invite people to want to compete with you. If you are suspicious about the intentions of the other, they are likely to be suspicious about your intentions.

If you want someone to do you a favour, you must be asking for help, be humble and hold a positive belief about the intentions and qualities of the other person. If you want someone to be pragmatic and make a deal with you, you must be pragmatic, hold no grudges. If you want someone to follow you, you must be confident. And so on.

It sounds obvious, but if you do a close look into your past behaviour, I bet you’ll discover, as I did, that you’re not always automatically choosing the most suitable attitude.

Normalizing getting what you want

It all starts by rejecting the dogmas of sales/persuasion books, and then swallowing the bitter pill of acceptance that you don’t have full control over the outcome.

Only when you’ve accepted the limits of what you control, you can focus on adopting the right attitude that maximizes your chances of getting what you want.

The right attitude can work wonders for you only if you are really focusing on getting what you want, and not on overpowering the other person. Most often in fact, when you succeed, what you want to get is what the other (in their power) wants to give.

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