Working with the brain to influence

August 24, 2016

Social interactions

We can all significantly benefit in our interactions with other people from a little knowledge about how our brains work (as well as the discipline of preparing for those interactions).

What this means is that if we want to have an intended effect on others, it’s best to work with the brain – rather than against it.

The merits of how to get the best from our social interactions has received increasing attention since Dale Carnegie released his 1936 classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. In the past few years, this pursuit has received a significant upgrade by assimilating advances in brain science research via experts such as Caroline Webb and David Rock’s Neuro Leadership Institute.

A real-life morality tale struck me as the right frame for this reflection on the brain, human behaviour and the value of preparation. This came after an unexpected social interaction yesterday that centred on one particular form of interaction to influence – selling.

Now, it’s kind of axiomatic in professional circles that if you don’t have something polite to say then don’t say it at all. But, the Renaissance masters knew a thing or two about helping us appreciate the meaningful. That sometimes a little chiaroscuro is essential: in order to fully appreciate the light, we also need to fathom the shadows.

A call from Dave

Yesterday afternoon I got a call on my mobile from a salesman. He was from a large conference organiser for professional services. Let’s call him Dave and the company Wiggles (since professional restraint behoves me to refrain from naming him or his company). Dave was calling me back after he’d earlier tried calling me at the office.

The conversation with Dave, paraphrased, and with only a little literary licence, went something like this.

“Hi John, it’s Dave from Wiggles and I’d like to tell you about a fabulous opportunity we have coming up with a conference we’re organising early next year on (your topic of expertise).”

“OK, Dave, I’d like to know a little bit more about it.”

“Sure, John, we have access to C-suite executives from more than 100 companies with turnovers of more $100 million. They get special access to information about you and your products and you get special business intelligence on them. We organise you exclusive access to meet with 30 or so of those executives one-on-one.”

“So, it’s kind of like a matching service?”

“Um, yeah I guess so…we only select 25 companies for this exclusive opportunity. Your company looks like it has something really different to offer.”

“Yes, Dave, we’d like to think so. We’re not for everyone, but for organisations that are focused on some specific outcomes we’re a good fit (three reasons duly elaborated).” Dave then demonstrated that he’d taken a very quick look at our company’s website, but also that he had not read much about our company’s methods or the personal profiles of our key people.

“Great, so let’s work out the ROI for you.” What followed was Dave’s brief explanation about expected conversion rates from the special matching process and some clarifications about average sales transactions sizes. Dave then introduced the price tag for his special offer as being $30,000.

“So, is that something you’d be interested in taking up?”

“Well, sure, I need to consult my business partner, give your proposal a little thought, look at our alternative options and then I could call you back early next week.”

“Well, that’s not really going to work for you John. Is this something you’d be interested in taking up sooner than that?”

“What, Dave, do you mean right now?”

“Yes, kind of. This exclusive opportunity is only open for the next 48 hours.”

“Well, then you can take that as a definite “no” Dave.”


“Dave, let me get this straight. You’re familiar with the work that our company does? That’s why you called me, yes? That we work in leadership development with behavioural change – and that as a consequence we’re pretty familiar with the principles of applied psychology?”

“Yes, I guess so”

“And you’ve just tried to use on me a sales technique that’s designed to encourage me to make a $30,000 decision in a snap based on a reflex emotional response?”

“Well…But you haven’t heard the rest of what I’ve got to say.”

“I don’t need to. Thank you and have a good day Dave.”

Sales calls aren’t the only form of social interaction where it can help to recognise how the brain works or prepare for an important interaction for influence – but they are commonplace and provide a salient example.

Some brain basics (learning from Dave)

Dave made a couple of oversights in his sales call – so let’s take a look at what we can learn from them. The are equally applicable any time that as a leader, team member or friend we’re interacting with someone and trying to influence them to achieve a desired outcome.

The first of Dave’s oversights reflects a lack of awareness of some fundamentals about how the brain works.

Fight or flight

Number one, a basic part of our brain (often characterised as being centred on the amygdala) is wired like a sentinel. Subconsciously, it takes a very simple view of what’s being put to us and does that very quickly: “Does this thing represent a threat or is this a reward?”.

This aspect of our brain has a sound evolutionary basis: helping us survive in dangerous environments. So, for example, if we’re surprised by something – like a wild animal or Dave’s time limited offer – and that thing doesn’t unambiguously look like a reward, then we are wired to treat it as a threat, and to defend against it.

Of course, one way to get the brain to put its reflex defences down is to start steadily building rapport with someone – simple techniques like finding things in common with them or listening carefully to them – but Dave didn’t do that.

Two-speed brain

Number two, another part of our brain is structured like a two-speed gearbox. As Daniel Kanehman’s Nobel Prize winning work uncovered, most of the time we are moving through our daily life we’re using that “quick” gear in our brain.

This particular gear helps us make quick evaluations about things, and by applying shortcuts (called heuristics: think of them like rules or sub-routines in an operating system) enable us to make rapid intuitive judgments without gathering much evidence. This is very useful if we’re doing something routine like choosing a cereal brand from a stacked supermarket shelf – otherwise we’d be there rooted in the aisle all afternoon!

And it was that “fast” process in my brain that Dave wanted me to use during his call – by compounding my fear of losing social status (by not being in an “in” group) with my brain’s natural shortcut for loss aversion.

But the second gear in which our brain can operate if we engage it is “slow” and deliberate: this is the one built and best for more complex, higher consequence decisions – which is useful whenever the situation demands working through data and weighing up the consequences, like hiring someone or making an investment decision. That was the part of my brain Dave demonstrated that he didn’t really want me to use.

Preparation and where our attention goes

Dave’s second error was that he didn’t prepare adequately for the sales call (or at least he didn’t exhibit that he had which is pretty much the same thing). Another way our brains are wired is that we tend to amplify our attentional focus.

Of course, there can be evolutionary benefits in getting more of what we pay attention to. But think of it like riding a bicycle: if we don’t want to ride into that pothole then we have to actively shift our attention elsewhere, i.e. towards the clear part of the road.

Our interactions with people can work the same way: if we don’t want unwanted consequences we need to start paying attention to things other than what our first emotions can dictate.

What Dave could have done before the meeting – and knowing that he was going to be primed to sell to meet what were probably some big targets set by his manager – was to have done some preparation. He could have followed a simple routine that helped him plan where he wanted to put his attention (onto my needs / discovering my problem), towards my background (so he could build rapport) and then reflecting on the assumptions he was at risk of carrying into the call (so he could influence how his brain filtered information and so optimised his responses to me).

Diligent meeting preparation is just one of Caroline Webb’s key recommendations for managers that are drawn from her wide-ranging review of psychological research, and client-centred preparation is a hallmark of best-practice sales methods (like Miller Heiman). The principle of preparation and applied psychology are central at The Everest Academy to the way we work and and the programs we offer.

Some particular lessons for selling

Furthermore, a best-practice selling method suitable for high value professional or other services – like Miller Heiman – emphasises a more patient, problem solving method because it works with how the brain is primed to be on higher alert when the stakes are higher. The emphasis is on the patient and methodical: identifying the decision-maker and profiling them, and then creating a dialogue with them that starts with their current situation, identifies the customer’s needs and problems and then endeavours to find ways in which the client’s problems can be solved by the product or service that is being sold.

In this way, a problem-solving-based sales method is built on the recognition that where post-purchase dissonance can have big downsides, people are inclined to want to take a more methodical and at least superficially rational approach to their judgements. Also that if they’re rushed or bullied into a purchase decision, executive buyers in particular are likely to respond defensively (the brain’s “fight or flight” response”) and curtail the salesperson’s pitch.

On the other hand, it’s far more common in retail markets – like consumer goods or services – where the buyer is probably less vigilant against those shortcuts because the stakes aren’t as high – to get what most of us would consider the “hard sell”. Here, the marketer ditches problem solving dialogue to focus more on things designed to trigger an emotionally-driven impulse to buy (i.e. bypasses more rational assessment) – for example time limited offers like “offer only available for the next 24 hours” or “limited stock only”.

Where brands risk getting themselves into reputational trouble is deploying “fast brain” sales tactics on buyers where they would naturally expect a “slow brain” approach. They are deploying a tactic well suited to how the brain works (shortcuts) to a situation where the brain is far more likely to be on guard. If you’re selling a chocolate bar, T-shirt or washing machine, a sales approach that seeks to rush the brain, and take advantage of its propensity for shortcuts, can work spectacularly well and with limited blow-back.

But when the seller tries that same approach to persuade people into buying higher value, higher risk products – like complex financial instruments (e.g. like in Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short”), or stocks (like in Ben Younger’s “Boiler Room”) or real estate (like in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” or David Mamet’s “Glengary GlenRoss) or professional services (like in James O’Shea and Charles Madigan’s “Dangerous Company”) or in this example, Wiggles’ vendor matching service  – then they run the risk of ending up with poor sales, poor referrals or very discontented customers or all three.

Which, with respect to two of those outcomes, is exactly what happened for Dave and Wiggles yesterday.

Moral: be aware and prepare

We can all learn from Dave and Wiggles.

All the important interactions we have at work (and home) every day where we are trying to influence people – not just selling – can make a similar call on the same competencies – in negotiations, in performance management meetings, in collaborative problem solving or in just getting along with our colleagues and friends.

They can all go better – if we make preparation a habit and we pay attention to how the brain works.

By John Carruthers



Dale Carnegie

How to Have a Good Day, Webb, C., Crown Business Books, 2016

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, Brooks, C., Random House, 2011

SPIN Selling, Rackham, N., McGraw Hill, 1988

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, D., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour, Ferrier, A., Oxford University Press, 2014

Your Brain at Work, Rock, D., Harper Collins, 2009