Uncommon Ground

Every computer used to have its own character set (most common is UTF-8). Unicode encoding created commonality (shared map) that computers in a particular region could share, simplifying communication.

Though the technology metaphor may be apt, stay with me even if it isn’t familiar to you. I’m illustrating the very point I wish to make: familiarity makes us comfortable. Unfamiliarity can initially make us feel awkward or anxious.

One of the most important aspects of influence is creating a sense of familiarity, of commonality, with the other person. When we see a speaker share an anecdote, assuring the audience that he is, or was just like them, he is diminishing the audience members’ perception that the speaker is different from them. This makes them comfortable, and they are far more likely to open themselves to influence from that speaker. So far, pretty obvious, right? After all, any course on influence and persuasion will cover that. But what if it’s not as simple as sharing an anecdote? What if there are unconscious processes at work, that the other person is continually evaluating whether they should listen to you, consider your point of view, and do ask you ask? That might suggest that one brief story may not be enough.

It isn’t. There is far more at work when we influence than we can relate in a two-minute anecdote. There are unconscious behaviors we can influence in others as well as in ourselves that will tip the scales in favor of the influence relationship. Is this a good thing? Assuming what you are influencing is not one-sided or exploitative, yes. If you are working to persuade someone to do something that will make their lives better, happier, more successful in some way, I would suggest that influence isn’t only ethical, but a favor to that person. If in benefits both of you, I’d call that a good exchange.

Then another question that often arises: Are we being honest with the other person when we “create” familiarity? Make no mistake: I’m not advocating making up something you have in common. Dishonesty here will catch up to you. The world is not as “big” as it used to be. If you therefore pretend to like bass fishing because you learn the other person loves it, but it’s untrue, your lie isn’t likely to be convincing in the first place. Further, it will eventually surface that you have never bass fished in your life, and your credibility will be history.

But there is always something we can find in common. Maybe both of you are fathers. Maybe you both went to college. Perhaps you both are divorced, share political views, and so on. There is always something we have in common with another person, even if at first glance, we couldn’t seem more different. Find those things and build upon them. These are just conscious examples of building those bridges, and in later articles, we will look at the unconscious variety. We begin here as a foundation, and then build upon it to become more persuasive.

For today, consider each person in your life, and identify as many things you have in common with them. It could be a physical attribute like gender, age, background, ethnicity, everything. Or it could be mental such as political or religious views, preferences in art or media sources, the types of books or films you enjoy. Anything that you can bond over as a commonality which isn’t a physical attribute. What your’e likely to find is that the people closest to you share the most common traits with you. At least, the traits you value the most. Conversely, consider the people in your life you dislike the most, or with whom you most dislike spending time. You are likely to find that there are significant differences in the attributes that matter to you most. Perhaps they share your gender and within a few years’ age compared to you. Maybe they are of the same ethnicity and like the same kind of movies as you. BUT upon closer examination, you notice that, as your religious beliefs are very important to you, they themselves might have significantly different beliefs in that area. Or if you are both very politically-minded, perhaps you wildly disagree in that area.

This is information we are going to use in becoming more persuasive. We are going to focus on our commonalities and de-emphasize the areas in which we disagree. We are going to begin learning to expand and build upon areas of commonality and familiarity to urge someone in a direction that will benefit us both.

While there are very effective NLP techniques for capitalizing on this commonality, I’ve found that often, we don’t need one. Once we feel that someone is like us, we often want to help, to take their points seriously. We often feel compelled to do as they ask because we relate to them so well.

In a later article, we will begin examining some of those NLP techniques. But let’s begin by becoming aware of existing commonality, identifying areas of disagreement, and learning to focus on the former, not the latter. As a foundation for becoming an exceptional persuader, these skills are bedrock.

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