How to get anyone to do anything you want

Years ago when I was studying at Wharton, Dr. Charles Dwyer taught us his five-step system for getting anyone to do anything you want. It sounded Machiavellian, but it wasn’t.

My original intent for this article was simply to share that system with you, because it so impacted me that for ten years after business school, I carried the five steps in my wallet.

But when I watched Dr. Dwyer’s 2011 video, he approached the topic from a different perspective.

“The sad conclusion I came to many years ago,” he observed, “Is that the stuff of human influence is fluff. Packaging. Nuance.”

It’s not what we say, he argues, but how we say it. The timing of our words can be more important than our words. The look in our eyes, the cut of our clothes, the moments when we choose to communicate… these often outweigh our words. Gestures, timing and tone really matter.

This is why, for example, an executive perceives he told his subordinates that if they work hard, he will reward them… but they heard, “I am this close to firing… you… incompetent fools.”

It’s why no matter how many times you tell your boss that you deserve more responsibility and a raise, she worries that you are not up to her standards.

“The behavioral fragments of you are all you have to influence anybody else on the face of the Earth,” says Dr. Dwyer. “Not your good intentions, not your wisdom, not your knowledge, not your skill, not your authority, not your position. Your fragments of behavior, as interpreted by them.”

He’s not being cynical; he’s being honest. We’ve all seen hardworking people get passed over. We’ve all experienced having the right answer, but watching our peers listen to someone else.

With these observations in mind, here is Dr. Dwyer’s original system as I learned it:

1.) Make sure the other person has the ability to do what you want.
Skip this step, and you will waste a lot of time. The only true obstacle to persuading someone to do something is if they lack the ability to do it. You can’t persuade an out of shape person to run a five-minute mile. If they lack the ability or self-confidence to do what you want, forget it.

2.) Offer a reward.
“If you can finish that project by Tuesday night,” you might tell your intern, “I’ll let you sit in on my meeting with the CEO.” Or, if she doesn’t want to be in high pressure meetings, you might say, “I’ll give you my tickets to the game.”

3.) Guarantee the reward.
The greatest prize in the world isn’t worth much if there is little chance you will win it. To persuade someone, you not only have to offer a carrot, but also prove they will get the carrot if they do what you ask. So if you are trying to close a sale, you might say, “If our software doesn’t reduce your costs by at least 10%, we’ll refund your money.”

4.) Reduce their costs.
People have a much greater ability to change their reality than most realize… if they are willing to pay the cost. Such costs can include longer hours, harder work or more inconvenience. By reducing the perception – or better yet, the reality – of these costs, you make it easier for others to do what you want. You could tell your high school son, “If you agree to go to practice five days a week, I’ll let you drive to school instead of taking the bus.” 

5.) Reduce their risks.
Most people hate to fail. They hate to be embarrassed, or to lose ground. Even if all four conditions listed above are satisfied, people can still resist your request because they perceive it to be too risky – personally – for them. To secure their cooperation, you must reduce their perceived risk. Dr. Dwyer suggests that the best way to get your boss to let you do something is to communicate that if it works they will get all the credit, but if it doesn’t, you will take all the blame. That’s what will happen anyway, he says, but if you use this tactic at least you will get to do what you want.

Finally, Dr. Dwyer says that the most effective way to get someone to do something is to ask for their help. It works far better than telling someone what to do.

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