What percentage of your time is spent convincing people to give up something they value (like time, energy, attention, or money) in exchange for something you offer?
This was the question posed by Daniel Pink, the first keynote speaker at this year’s ASCD conference in Los Angeles. He shared a study where 7,000 Americans participated, and the average response was that 40% of their time was spent persuading. For myself (and I’m betting for most of you educators reading this, as well), I’d say it could be 100%–pretty much every aspect of our work involves trying to gain and keep others’ attention and get their buy-in.
This is a big change from the past where most people’s jobs didn’t involve much persuasion. And perhaps even more significantly, most people who worked in a persuasive field had more information than the people being persuaded: the sellers of goods or ideas had more info than the buyers. But in the last 10 years, we’ve gone from a world of information asymmetry to a world of information parody where the persuader and “persuadee” have similar amounts of information. This is true in every area of our lives. Claims can be fact-checked and there are lots of ways to talk back. This is true in the classroom too–students bring a tremendous amount of knowledge of the world and have the ability to access more of it entirely on their own.
So for the first time in history, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time trying to persuade people to “move” and we’re doing it in a landscape that doesn’t give us an information advantage. Therefore we need to think about our work in a new way.
In order to be successful in this new world of work, it’s very important to have good attunement skills. Can you get out of your own head to see things from others’ point of view? We don’t have coercive power in most situations, even in the classroom. If we want to get students or other people to “move”, we have to understand where they are coming from and meet them where they are, rather than force them to meet us where we’re at.
Now, here’s the important thing to note: most of the time when you try to persuade or influence people, it’s not going to work. This is an accepted fact in other fields: ask a car salesperson or internet marketer. They know they’re facing an ocean of rejection as persuaders.
As Daniel Pink shared this, I was struck by the profound irony of how teaching is being unprofessionalized, where teachers are being blamed for the problems in education. The fact is that it’s just not possible to persuade an entire room or class full of people to give you their time, attention, and energy, and see things your way 100% of the time. Teaching is a tough job! Like other persuaders, we have to keep trying, but it shouldn’t surprise or discourage us to realize that all kids aren’t going to buy what we’re selling every single moment of the day. The key is to have big goals, but accomplish them through a series of small wins.
Maybe you’re thinking, I don’t consider myself a persuader. I’m not good at that–I’m not even an extrovert! Daniel Pink says that extroverts are more likely to be in persuasive fields, but there’s no link between extroversion and successful persuasiveness. And anyway, extroverts and introverts are pretty narrow definitions. There are ambiverts who are in the middle, and research shows they are actually the most persuasive. They know when to talk and when to listen, when to push and when to pull back. The people who can balance it all are the best at selling their ideas. So, you do not have to be an extreme extrovert to persuade, and most of us ARE in the middle. We have an innate capacity to persuade people well. Don’t try to be an extrovert, just be a better version of yourself.
Here’s one of Daniel’s ideas for being a better persuader in the classroom. Let’s say you have a child who doesn’t want to complete an assignment. Daniel suggests asking, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to ___ (do this assignment)?” The child might say a 2. According to principles of motivational interviewing, you can then say, “Why didn’t you pick a lower number–why aren’t you a 1?” Then the student will identify the small reasons why she or he thinks doing the task might be worthwhile. Of course, this is not a magic bullet approach, but it does helps you uncover the student’s reasons for doing or not do something. Ultimately what people do for themselves is what they are most motivated to do. So, if you can help the child tap into the benefits she or he sees in doing what you’ve asked, you’re more likely to get cooperation.
When we try to lead, teach, instruct, or explain, we usually spend most of our time talking about HOW to do something. We don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the WHY. This is the cheapest persuasive tool you have: explaining WHY.
When you go back to your classroom, Daniel issues the following challenge: have two fewer conversations about HOW and two more about WHY, and you will find yourself being more persuasive. Spend just a little less time on the directions and little more on questions like: Why are we doing this? Why does it matter? Why is it important?
WHY is an important question to ask ourselves, too. Everyone goes into education for the right reasons, then no one ever talks about those reasons again. As an outsider to our schools, Daniel Pink is astonished by the fact that every single day, teachers willingly work within a system that is totally messed up by people who don’t know anything about education, and we go in there because we have an important WHY and we care about kids. He implores us to conduct the WHY exercise with ourselves. Have that conversation about why you’re doing what you’re doing and tap into the reasons why you entered the profession in the first place. We can’t lose sight of the nobility of what we do. Daniel Pink tells us that outsiders are looking on with awe, admiration, and gratitude.
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