The first time I spoke on the topic, I asked the crowd, “What comes to mind when you think of the dark side of persuasion?”

They shouted out. “Controlling.” “Manipulative.” “Tricking people into doing things they don’t want to do.” “Pushy.”

I shared my definition of persuasion. “You have a gift. By virtue of your education, background and work experience, no one can do what you do at work in the same way you can. But with this gift comes responsibility. You have to present information in a way that people can see, hear and feel it—and then make a good decision about whether or not they should do what you’re proposing.”

My reading list is making me think a lot about that this week.

Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion is a fascinating book. He touches on ideas that now are staples in neuroscience. Here’s one example.

Cialdini calls it “the rejection then retreat” sequence. Let’s say I want to borrow $5 from you. So I start by asking you for $10. You say you can’t do that right now. So I come back with, “I understand and don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. But it would really help me out if you would give me $5.”

What’s Going On in Your Brain

Your brain experiences two things:

  • The Contrast Principle: My first request of $10 is your anchor. A 50% reduction to $5 makes my ask seem more reasonable to you.
  • The Rule of Reciprocity: When someone does something to or for us, we want to respond in kind. (Have you ever found yourself raising your voice when someone is hollering at you?) I made a concession by lowering the amount of money. You feel drawn to make a concession, too, and give it to me.

Cialdini introduces this idea with, “If I want you to lend me five dollars, I can make it seem like a smaller request by first asking you to lend me ten dollars.”

“Sure,” we say, “negotiators do this stuff all of the time. Everybody always asks for more than they know they can get.”

I just did something similar when putting my house up for sale, understanding that potential buyers will want me to drop the price.

Does Your Life Depend Upon It?

A speaker recently mentioned using the techniques he learned from Chris Voss’ Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. This was true in Voss’ world: he was a hostage negotiator for the FBI.

The speaker told how he used the techniques on an unsuspecting car salesman—and purchased a vehicle well below the list price. “I almost felt guilty,” he said.

So the next day, he returned to speak with the salesman, saying, “I don’t think you made any money on that sale.” The salesman replied, “You stole my soul!

The speaker gave him Voss’ book, with $200 in it, and explained the information here allowed him to engineer that excellent price.

Watching for the Line

But when do the tactics that Cialdini and Voss’ espouse become a matter of ethics and integrity? When are we playing with the way people’s brains work for our own gain? Literally fooling them so we can get what we want.

It’s hard to know where the line is. You, too, may want to read both books to be aware of the techniques.

We’ve all heard, “Buyer Beware.” It’s just as important to know who you are when you’re selling.