A Lesson In Persuasion: Give Up Control To Get What You Want

Updated: Apr 20, 2019



When I was a kid I liked eating out at restaurants that included a placemat I could draw on while we waited for our food. My favorite placemat activity was the connect-the-dots pictures. Dan Roam, a visual communication expert, suggests we enjoy those pictures because we can complete them ourselves. We take ownership of the outcome because we are part of the process. Psychological research has found that this sense of control is also an important part of influence.


To understand influence you must first understand control. Tali Sharot, author of the The Influential Mind, writes, “When you alter someone’s beliefs or actions you are, to some extent, exerting control over that individual. When you are influenced by another, you are giving that individual control over you.” The problem is we don’t like giving up control. When we lose control we often feel frustrated, angry, and resistant.


Therefore, to persuade others, we need to give them a sense of control. Rather than telling people what they should do, Sharot suggests we guide people toward a solution while maintaining their sense of control. After watching thousands of persuasive presentations, I’ve concluded that presenters are much more successful when they make the audience part of the process. In fact, we value things we create ourselves more than the exact same things created by someone else. Researchers at Harvard Business School have dubbed this phenomena the IKEA effect.


Let’s see what giving control to your listening audience looks with two examples.

  • Imagine you are a manager of a restaurant and your current point of sale system is not meeting the needs of the business. Instead of telling the leadership team all the things wrong with the system, ask them what issues they have observed. Getting your audience to help define the problem will prime them to want to help you solve it.

  • Imagine you work for a hotel company that is experiencing long wait times at check in and you think adding automated check-in kiosks might help address this problem. In your attempt to persuade decision makers of your idea, you could involve them in the process. Instead of presenting all the details of your plan, ask them how they think the brand could best incorporate the kiosks, where they think the kiosk could be placed in the lobby, or what location might be a good place to pilot this initiative. Give them control over the details.

The next time you want to move an audience, get them involved in the process. Ask them to define the problem in their own words and be willing to give up control of the exact details of your plan in order to garner support for your overall idea. When you allow others to communicate their pearls of wisdom, their brain’s reward center is activated, and they experience a burst of pleasure when they share their thoughts. The pleasure we feel when we get to participate in the persuasive process helps us understand the science behind Henry David Thoreau’s words, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked what I thought, and attended to my answer.”