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Faculty Viewpoints

Learning the Language of Influence and Persuasion

In a discussion of her new book, Influence is Your Superpower, Yale SOM’s Zoe Chance outlined strategies that make people want to say yes to you.

When people think of influence strategies, what often comes to mind are the tactics of smarmy used car salesmen or social media stars shilling sponsored goods. Zoe Chance, a senior lecturer at Yale SOM, wants to change that. “I have been increasingly frustrated by watching so many of my favorite people, who are so nice, so talented, so hardworking, so smart, fail to have the influence that they could in the world, while these power-hungry people are grabbing at it and getting it because they’re the ones who study influence.”

Chance, who teaches the popular course “Mastering Influence and Persuasion” spoke about her new book, Influence is Your Superpower: The Science of Winning Hearts, Sparking Change, and Making Good Things Happen, at a recent event hosted online by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. The conversation was moderated by Vincent Stanley, director of philosophy at Patagonia and resident fellow at CBEY.

The cover of "Influence Is Your Superpower"

According to Chance, the keys to influence are two unlikely characters, an alligator and a judge. This is how she thinks about System 1 and System 2, the dual modes of decision-making foundational to behavioral economics. The Gator (System 1) is the first responder, lurking below the surface of conscious awareness and governing emotions and habitual behavior. Chance recalled feeding resident alligators at an Orlando theme park. Unless the meat she tossed landed within a gator’s bite zone, it didn’t budge. “This represents how many of our influence attempts are ignored, because the dominant response by the Gator is to do nothing.”

As for System 2, “Picture a judge sitting in a courtroom carefully deliberating one case at a time and trying to make an objective, rational decision.” The Judge is the second-guesser, but only sometimes, and cannot make decisions without input from the Gator.

The Gator is responsible for 95% of a person’s decisions and behavior, according to research estimates. For Chance, this means that the most important thing to take into account when trying to influence someone is the immediate visceral and emotional response the Gator will have.

Presenting facts and analysis and expecting people to make an informed decision is a common mistake. Chance had to learn this lesson the hard way as a product manager for Mattel’s Barbie brand. Months of painstaking work was dismissed by executives citing a “gut feeling.” Chance was not presenting the new ideas in a Gator-friendly way. It wasn’t that upper management didn’t care about analysis. They weren’t primed for it.

The Gator also won out at Patagonia in the 1990s, when the company switched from conventional cotton to organic cotton, Stanley noted. Because organic cotton had to be purchased directly from farmers rather than from factories, the conversion caused a mild revolt among employees faced with the burden of establishing an entire new global supply chain. Then those advocating for the switch brought their reluctant colleagues to the conventional cotton fields in California’s Central Valley where they were overwhelmed by organophosphates and herbicides. “The figures didn’t make any difference but the smell did,” Stanley said.

Another tool for eliciting a Gator response is framing, or the conscious shaping of expectations. Chance outlined three categories of effective frames: monumental, which emphasizes importance; manageable, which emphasizes ease; and mysterious, which sparks curiosity. Framing something as a pattern break attracts attention from the Gator, who otherwise ignores everything that conforms to expectations.

Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up is a testament to the power of the three frames. The title combines the monumental (“life-changing”), the mysterious (“magic”), and the manageable (“tidying-up”). Eleven million copies, 40 translations, and a TV show later, it’s a mega bestseller around the world.

What about influencing those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum? Chance pointed to the phenomenon of the false polarization gap. “When someone disagrees with us, we tend to assume they are on the far, far, extreme end,” she explained. Every year she assigns an “Empathy Challenge” to her students, in which they have 15-minute conversations with three people who disagree with them on an issue they care about. The students don’t try to influence opinions during their conversations. Instead, they focus on identifying the underlying values the other person holds dear and reflect those back to them. Chance said.

Chance and Vincent discussed a host of other techniques for developing influence, including the “magic question,” a favorite of her students. The question is “What will it take?” and it can be posed in almost any situation. “You can ask it of any person at any time and you can even ask it of the same person repeatedly,” Chance said. “It sparks a mindset of collaborative problem-solving, which feels good to people.”

Chance explained that “learning influence is like learning a second or third language. It takes practice.” People new to influence tend to be hyper-aware of when and how they’re applying the skills and techniques, just as those new to a language often labor over every word before speaking. But as a student of influence progresses and eventually becomes a person other people want to say yes to, many of these skills and techniques aren’t needed anymore. “It’s challenging in the middle, but it’s much easier at the end,” she said. Hang on to the magic question, though. “You still need to ask, but you don’t need to strategize.”

Department: Faculty Viewpoints