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Want to Get Your Way? Watch and Listen


Last updated 7/13/2010

In 1971, psychologist Albert Mehrabian published a study in which he concluded that listeners evaluate the “emotional content”—the persuasive power—of a speech primarily on the basis of facial expressions and body movement. He found that visual cues accounted for 55% of how listeners evaluated what was said, vocal qualities such as tone and pitch of the voice made up 38%, and the actual words accounted for only 7%.

In most business contexts, the public presentation of an argument is not a simple lecture. It involves a degree of give-and-take, sometimes a great deal of it. The ability to speak persuasively is, of course, central to making an effective argument. In most real-world situations, however, the ability to listen skillfully and effectively is just as important.

Receptive listening does not require you to agree with everything the other person says. Rather, it is an opportunity to focus your message on the needs of the audience. You have an opportunity to demonstrate, explicitly, how your ideas and opinions are directly relevant to the needs and concerns of the people you are addressing. Listen for clues to, or outright statements of, what interests the other person, then pounce on the idea and discuss it in terms of your argument or proposition.

Learn the grammar of body language:

  • If someone tilts his head to one side, you can assume that he is listening intently to what you are saying and is interested. Sales professionals call this gesture a "buy signal," an indication that you should continue speaking in the current vein.

  • Head scratching indicates confusion or disbelief. Take this signal as your cue to pause and ask a question: "Am I making myself clear enough here?" Or, "I'm not sure I'm making myself clear. Let me put it another way…"

  • Lip biting indicates anxiety and may suggest that an issue you have brought up has touched a nerve. Respond by expressing your understanding of the sensitive nature of the hot-button issue: "I realize that this is an area that causes anxiety, but I think it's an important issue to explore."

  • If the person to whom you are speaking rubs the back of her head or neck, she may be getting frustrated or impatient. If possible, move on to another topic as gracefully as possible: "But, of course, this isn't as important as XYZ." Another good response is to ask the other person where she wants to go: "If you like, we can continue on this subject or move on to ABC."

  • If the other person lowers his chin markedly, he may be conveying a degree of defensiveness. Perhaps he has interpreted something you've said as a criticism. If you did not intend to be critical, make a soothing remark: "Of course, I recognize that everyone has his own style in such matters. We need to be flexible and use what works."

  • When the other person nods up and down, accept the gesture as a strong buy signal. Continue the conversation in the current vein.

  • If something you say provokes a head shake from side to side, be aware that what you have said is being rejected. Respond to it directly: "I sense that you don't agree with me on this point. What part of my position gives you trouble?"

  • If the other person narrows her eyes, it usually means the same thing as a head shake from side to side, so again, respond directly: "I feel that we're not in agreement on this point. Can you tell me what disturbs you about what I've said?"

  • A pronounced narrowing of the eyes into a squint suggests puzzlement rather than disagreement. Pause, then offer a remark such as "I'd like to be very clear on this point. Let me put what I've said another way."

  • Raised eyebrows indicate surprise or outright disbelief. Respond directly: "I know this is hard to believe, but . . ."

  • It is difficult to interpret the meaning when someone avoids eye contact. Perhaps the other person is just shy. The best response is to be friendly. The more serious situation is when eye contact noticeably drops off during the conversation. This suggests that you are losing the other person's interest. Take quick action: "I can say more about ABC, but perhaps you want to move on to XYZ. Yes?"

  • The person who stares intently at you is probably trying to intimidate you. Ignore it as best you can. Do not respond.

  • Be aware of the person’s breathing. Breathlessness—shallow, rapid breathing—is typical of anxiety. Respond with reassurance: "Of course, that's a problem we can solve." Look for the caught breath, a sudden intake of air that indicates the other person's eagerness to say something. Invite a comment at once.

  • The most alarming signal to watch for is the sigh, which always suggests frustration or a high degree of boredom. Don't panic, but do move on to another topic.

All good things must come to an end. Be sensitive to the verbal and nonverbal signs that the conversation is coming to a close. These include:

  • Phrases beginning with "Well, it's been…" Or, "I want to thank you…"
  • The other person rising from her chair
  • The person setting his eyes on the door

Of course, it is always possible that the person to whom you are speaking will say something like, "Well, I have to go now." Whatever the signal, do not seek to prolong the conversation. You might close with, "Have I answered all of your questions?" just to make certain that you are not leaving anything important unsaid. Now is the time to assume that you have made the sale, and as any good salesman knows, once you've made the sale, it's time to shut your mouth.

Adapted from Getting Your Way Every Day: Mastering the Lost Art of Pure Persuasion by Alan Axelrod (AMACOM, 2007).
For more information on this and other AMACOM business titles, visit www.amanet.org/books