Have you ever noticed that sometimes- even when there is no logical reason for it- your staff or your customers simply won’t take actions that are clearly in their best interests?
They have made their minds up about what is happening before you have had a chance to explain it, or they agree with what you propose, but just don’t seem capable of taking action.
Regardless of the best intentions, our brains have a ‘fast’ decision circuit that leaps to conclusions before we can logically process information. If we don’t help our customers or staff to make the right ‘leaps’ and conclusions, their cognitive processing will often make a decision to avoid change, and therefore to not take the action which would be in their benefit.
Beneath all of the logical processing that occurs in our minds runs a much deeper, almost primitive evaluation system. It is this system which often needs to be convinced before the person takes action. This system is fast to decide, uses devices like pattern matching (compares this situation to what it already knows or remembers) and seeks to protect the individual from surprise and risk. Only after this system gives the ‘thumbs up’, will we take action.
If this system is triggered or leaps to the wrong conclusion, it might stop an employee changing their behaviour for the good of the organisation, or may stop a customer agreeing to sign on the dotted line.
Using bias and heuristics (mental short cuts), they are making non-logical assumptions and assessments which happen faster and more powerfully that logical processing can occur. In fact, individuals will often make a rapid decision based upon these primal systems, and then use their ‘logical’ systems to create a justification for why that ‘fast’ decision is correct.
By understanding – and working with- this unconscious process, we can help our customers and staff to take actions, to consider things logically, and to shift to higher quality behaviours and choices, without them making rapid decisions that will keep them stuck.
If you consider how the best communicators operate, such as politicians, salespeople and religious leaders, they all get their traction through working with this system, rather than appealing only to logic.
To help our staff and customers get past the ‘rapid response’ of ‘NO’, we have to help them find the appropriate connections and frameworks so that what we are asking them to do answers the three key unconscious questions that the unconscious system is attempting to reconcile:
• “Is it safe?”
• “Will I be successful?”
• “Will I be satisfied?”
Remember that each question is answered unconsciously, reflexively and based upon the information immediately apparent to the person and what frame of reference they approach it in.
Consider the following example. A colleague recommends two people for a senior role you have available. You check them out, and this is the feedback you get:
Bob: Intelligent, strong, arrogant, short tempered.
Bill: Arrogant, short tempered, strong, intelligent.
Most people would prefer Bob over Bill. Their brains ‘seal the deal’ after reading the first few adjectives, and then start to justify the last two adjectives as less relevant. However, if you were not led by your unconscious ‘fast’ response, you would see that both individuals share exactly the same characteristics.
Helping your customers and staff decide to act or change behaviour means understanding that these ‘quick leaps’ to conclusions, follow-on justifications and lack of rational examination of a topic are normal. Communicating through and around these processes allows the quick leaps to be towards action, rather than away from it.
The three questions:
The instantaneous and unconscious process of drawing conclusions mirrors the belief structures presented in Maslow’s famous pyramid. Each ‘question’ needs to be answered by the person in order to progress to take action.
The first question is about survival, the second question is about achievement and the third question is about satisfaction.
Consider your own experience. Think of a time when you did not feel something was ‘safe’, would be ‘successful’ or be ‘satisfying’ – what was your level of motivation to act?
Customers and staff pass through the same process –according to their highly individual views on these topics.
There is no single answer.
Each individual has their own meanings and associations on which they compare their current situation with their personal experience. For example, what is ‘safe’ for one person is very different from what someone else considers is safe.
People also operate across a range of ‘cognitive domains’ at the same time – for example material, comparative, social, physical and emotional. An individual may be asking the safe, successful and satisfied unconscious questions in any of these domains (and can even switch between them). Depending on the frame of reference they are taking at the time, their interpretation will be dramatically skewed
For example, you could be selling me a car on its ‘material’ benefits (safety, successful and satisfying) but I could be evaluating it unconsciously on its emotional or relational aspects (What will my wife think? How does it compare to Mr Jones next door?). The information that you provide does not fit my thinking frame, and therefore is ignored.
What can you do?
If we want customers or clients to act, it is critical that their unconscious evaluation allows them to conclude that the action is safe, successful and satisfying. By understanding how this happens, we can take very specific actions to help them.
Seek to understand. what domains of thinking people are using around the action or change topic. Is it comparative? Is it material? Is it social? Is it emotional? Listen – then use these frame to communicate back to them about the action or behaviour change.
Set the frame if the one they are in is not useful. Simply talking in the terms of the frame allows a person to shift their thinking to this frame, before you introduce the topic. Small talk can be excellent for this, or opening remarks or stories. This ‘primes’ the individual to access certain thoughts, memories and associative meanings that influence the interpretation and conclusions drawn.
Consider a meeting that is opens with a discussion of problems and issues. This encourages people to focus on this and use this frame to evaluate the rest of the content through this lens. If you are presenting to this meeting, it would be best to change the frame through a discussion of success, opportunities, excitement (etc) to shift their focus and priming to suit want you have to say.
Start with the positive. As you saw from the Bob and Bill example, people connect the dots and make initial conclusions very quickly. On this basis, loading your message with positive attributes (especially around safety, success and satisfaction) at the start is critical. Open a discussion on the ‘cons’ much later, as they will be accepted or rationalised as incidental, after the initial decision has been made.
Tell stories that deliver your message. To be influential, structure your messages to indirectly deal with these three questions in order during your conversation. Use positive language and check to see they have answered the question before moving on.
Make it safe.
• Remove ambiguity and increase certainty.
• Already have introduced the ideas, key words or desired actions in conversation, before asking for the action or change. Familiarity removes surprise, and increases positive evaluation.
• Don’t offer too many choices at once. This creates uncertainty and a negative evaluation.
• Clearly describe how and why it will be ‘safe’ after the action or change. People would rather stay in an uncomfortable circumstance than change to an unknown one.
• Tell stories of how others were ‘safe’ by taking the action.
Show them how they will be successful.
• Give them an understanding – against their own meaning of success on the topic – how it will make them successful.
• Demonstrate how not acting will be unsuccessful after the positive case has been made.
• Tell stories and make vivid ‘how’ success will be achieved after the action.
• Pay attention for people who are fear-motivated. Making them feel that it will relieve or remove ‘pain’ will be more motivating than offering big outcomes (that they won’t believe are possible for them). If people have fear motivation or poor self-image, suggesting they can achieve ‘amazing results’ often draws a negative evaluation, based upon an unconscious association to their evaluation of themselves, and their personal capability.
Make it satisfying.
• Understand their expectations, and demonstrate to them how these will be met.
• Show how they will gain comfort, satisfaction and ease (and removal of their opposites) by taking action. These are critical things that the ‘fast brain’ seeks.
• Set realistic expectations that match the person’s beliefs.
• Find where they are currently unsatisfied, and highlight these aspects of the current state.
Once someone has decided, it is difficult to change their minds. To do so requires that you engage them in logical thinking. This only happens when they are calm, non-defensive and have mental ‘space’ and capacity to process logically. When people become defensive, are overloaded or confused they will switch off logical thinking and use only their unconscious processes.
If someone isn’t taking action, ask which of the three questions they have not answered, and how can you help them do so?
If you find yourself resisting taking action, ask yourself which question has been violated, and what steps need to be taken to resolve it.