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Get What You Want: 12 Rules to Being an Expert at Persuasion

Whether you're pitching a corporate client or negotiating the price of a car, there are tips and techniques we can all use to channel the power of persuasion.

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First, be a good listener

“Being persuasive ironically requires that you be a good listener,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a clinical psychologist and best-selling author from Lake Forest, Illinois. “You want them to realize why your idea is a good one, and to do that, you need to know what is important to them.” Reinforce that you hear what the person is saying and then repeat what they said, says Dr. Lombardo. “This helps them feel heard, which is important. If someone does not feel heard, they will focus on making sure you hear their side and not focus on listening to you,” she explains. Here’s what all good listeners do during daily conversations.

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Recognize what matters…to them

Sure, you’re focused on what matters to you, but the key to persuasion is understanding what matters to the other person—and, conversely, what doesn’t, says Erica McCurdy, a certified life coach from Norcross, Georgia. This is achieved through what she calls “active listening.” “When we focus more on what we want to say next than on what the other person is saying to us, we are likely to miss opportunities to align with the other person, shorten the path to agreement, and lessen the discomfort of the conversation,” she says. Sharpening your empathy skills can help you see other people’s perspectives.

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It’s not about you

If you’re trying to persuade someone, don’t focus on what you want. Don’t start sentences with “I want” or “I think.” Instead, focus on how what you’re offering can benefit the other person. “Each time you start with what you want, you put distance between you and your goal,” says McCurdy. She also suggests avoiding phrases that can sound accusatory, such as “You don’t understand” or “You didn’t hear what I said.” “Try to think about the other person’s self-interest, not yours,” she explains, adding that you should avoid the temptation to talk directly about what you want until you’ve considered the other person’s agenda. Don’t miss these 5 power words to instantly get what you want.

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No “buts” about it

Certain words and phrases—such as repeatedly saying “but”—carry a negative connotation and can limit your effectiveness, says Dr. Lombardo. Using “but,” as in “I hear what you are saying, but…” can negate the other person’s perspective and place on you opposite sides of the argument, she says. It also goes without saying, but you should avoid attacking a person by telling them that they’re wrong or being stupid, says Dr. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.” Once an attack is made, any chance at persuading them is gone,” she says. Here are some other behaviors that make you look like a jerk.

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Confidence is king

The same goes for adding “ummm.” “Saying ‘ummm’ makes you appear unconfident and unknowledgeable, both of which reduce the likelihood that someone will be persuaded by you,” Dr. Lombardo says. Your level of confidence can make or break an argument, adds Dr. Marsden. “The moment that your confidence falters, you lose footing. You need to sound experienced in the content so that they trust your judgment,” she says.

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Focus on the “we”

While certain words and phrases should be avoided, others, like using “we” instead of “I” can make you more persuasive. “Using words of understanding and solidarity with the other person’s position help narrow the gap between you and make the other person feel like you’re on the same side. Using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ brings you closer,” says McCurdy. She suggests using phrases like, “We both want to…” from the standpoint of their benefit, not yours. People often “dig in their heels” because they don’t feel respected or heard, she advises. “Show the other person you understand how much they care about their position by recognizing their feelings—validation goes a long way toward bringing you closer to agreement,” she says.

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Let your body talk

Body language certainly impacts how persuasive we appear. After all, if you seem nervous, you won’t be as effective. To appear more relaxed, avoid postures that can make you appear closed off or uptight. “Showing open body language is more persuasive than closed body language,” says Dr. Marsden. “Closed body language would be crossing your arms and/or legs and making yourself look smaller. This does not show confidence.” You should also stand tall with your shoulders back and head held high, as physical confidence can relay that you’re also emotionally and psychologically strong, says Dr. Lombardo. “For example, when you are buying a car, your physical confidence will increase the likelihood that the sales person will believe you to be psychologically confident and even walk away if you don’t like the deal,” she says.

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Lean in…with caution

Leaning in toward another person is a classic persuasive technique. Sure, it can help you bond, but don’t overdo it, or you could make the person feel as if you’re invading their personal space. “While leaning in is often a sign of interest and excitement, don’t be afraid to relax and lean back if the conversation is getting too intense,” says McCurdy. “Pushing too hard—with your words or body language—can make the other person uncomfortable.” When it comes to touching the other person, always use caution, says Dr. Lombardo. “If it is appropriate, use touch, such as a handshake or a touch on the shoulder,” she says. “This increases the connection between you when used properly.”

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Watch your tone and pace

Your tone of voice also can impact your effectiveness, according to Dr. Lombardo. Using an enthusiastic tone of voice can help the other person get excited about your idea. Just try to match the pace of the other person’s speech at the same time. “If, for example, you are speaking with someone who speaks quickly, it’s important that you not speak overly slowly. Otherwise, they may be annoyed with how slowly you speak,” Dr. Lombardo says. The same thing goes for volume, she explains. People who tend to speak softly won’t feel as comfortable with a loud talker. Don’t miss these 8 secrets for improving your speech.

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Conquer anxiety

Many people get nervous about trying to selling their ideas, either because they lack confidence or because they fear public speaking. One way to overcome this anxiety is through practice. “This may sound useless, but it can be incredibly helpful for someone with social anxiety, especially if their partner throws out some tough questions,” Dr. Marsden says. “The more they practice, the more prepared they will feel.” Even speaking in front of a mirror can be helpful.

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Tame tension

Nervousness also manifests in our body language, especially in our hands, says McCurdy. “When we get nervous, we tend to clench our fists and fidget with our hands,” she says. “This tension translates throughout our whole body and even into our language.” To ease the anxiety, she recommends these tips: If you’re sitting, place your hands on your knees and relax your fingers—perhaps even keep your palms up, as if you’re meditating. If you’re standing, keep your fingers relaxed and open. “You’ll find that you become more relaxed and open when your hands are relaxed, and when you are focusing on your hands, you forget—at least a little—about all of the other tension you are feeling,” McCurdy says.

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Be assertive, not aggressive

Above all, remember that the goal is to be a strong advocate for your ideas, but not to the point of being overbearing. Assertiveness means expressing your own needs and wants while being respectful to others, while aggression disrespectfully expresses your own needs and wants, says Dr. Lombardo. “People often say, ‘I didn’t want to seem rude or mean.’ You can be assertive without being rude to the other person,” she says. Also avoid trying too hard to sound persuasive, says Dr. Marsden, since it turns people off. “Most people don’t want to be persuaded or manipulated, so you should not be obvious about it,” she says. Next, here’s how to argue with someone who is always right.