Article by Isabelle Roughol - "This soft skill has a bad reputation. Yet it’s the one employers badly need."

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019


We came across the following article on Linkedin and just had to share. Check out the original post by Isabelle Roughol here. Isabelle is Senior editor-at-large, LinkedIn.

"Matthew Kimberley still cringes to think about one of his earliest sales jobs, in Malta’s booming timeshare industry in the early 2000s.

“The entire process was built upon bringing people into a face-to-face sales presentation under false pretenses,” he recalls. Touts would steer unsuspecting tourists his way. Kimberley then enticed them into a multi-hour sales pitch, carefully scripted to mask fine print and hidden fees.


“The first hour was called the warm-up. It was actually information extraction,” he explains. “We would try to assess their net worth, their wealth, their inclination to spend money, their hot buttons. Were they super fond of their grandchildren? Were they keen on impressing each other?”


What at first seemed friendly banter was used hours later for the hard sell, each avowed insecurity, each deep desire a new angle for the salesman. “We’d jiu-jitsu them,” Kimberley says.


Today, he uses the same listening and argumentative skills more ethically, helping small business owners establish a sales strategy for customers who actually need them. “It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use all the persuasion strategies at your disposal,” he says. “But you’ll find it easier to help people who genuinely need it.”


It only takes one encounter with an overly aggressive sales scheme to give persuasion a bad name. Even those who may be good at it can shy away from including it on profiles and résumés. But it can be put to good use: Persuasion is one of the most in-demand soft skills in the job market worldwide, LinkedIn data shows. And it’s the only one we’re ashamed to admit to.


“The issue around persuasion is that, in addition to being a soft skill that is not taught, it is sometimes viewed as something that is questionable or dangerous to teach because it could be interpreted by some as manipulation,” says Dorie Clark, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “When it is done the right way, persuasion is simply a subset of effective communication.”


Persuasion is the art of getting someone to do something you want through reasoning, bringing them to your way of thinking and moving them to action. You could get the same result many other ways – orders, threats, manipulation, bribery, coercion – but persuasion is the least costly option, explains Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. He wrote “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, the seminal book on the topic. “Persuasion is simply asking people to move in your direction by explaining or offering genuine reasons that are in their benefit to accept,” he says.


Persuasion is in very high demand in many sectors, particularly the Internet, IT and software industries, finance, human resources, staffing and recruiting, or the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, according to LinkedIn Talent Insights. Those who claim the skill are salespeople, of course, business owners and founders, CEOs, who all deal with customers, but also people managers, project managers, and consultants.


Persuasion matters to all professionals because hierarchy increasingly doesn’t. “Our companies these days are flatter and require greater levels of collaboration across departments and across silos,” Clark explains. “You can’t fall back on authority. You need to enlist people. You need to get their buy-in.”


Such interpersonal soft skills are highly prized by employers. According to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report, 92% of recruiters surveyed worldwide said a candidate’s soft skills were equally or more important than their hard skills when deciding whether to hire them. Soft skills are our armor against automation, the thing machines can’t do. When it comes to persuasion, however, one computer is trying.


Project Debater is IBM’s latest artificial intelligence grand challenge — AI that can argue with humans. Last June, the machine won one of its first two public Oxford-style debates, meaning it was able to move more people in the audience to its side of the argument than its human opponent, a professional debater. (If you’re curious, the topic was, “We should increase the use of telemedicine.”) It will be up against a tougher opponent in a couple of weeks.


The most challenging work for the machine, Project Debater lead scientists Noam Slonim and Ranit Aharonov told me, is to understand the opponent’s arguments and rebut them, and to accomplish its goals in a context where winning is a far more nuanced outcome than in a game of chess or go. Even if the machine does succeed, convincing people in a theoretical argument is one thing; moving them to action is another.


“Arguments often don’t work. People have set beliefs and they are going to resist your arguments,” Cialdini says. Instead, a persuasive speaker understands and aligns with his or her audience’s existing values and adapts the message. He recalls a marketing professor who tried to determine the most effective persuasive technique. He ended the search after three years, concluding that looking for a single answer was a fool’s errand. Persuasion starts with that most human of skills — empathy.


Matthew Kimberley quit the timeshare business when his parents visited Malta and asked to attend one of his sales presentations. “I immediately froze and said, “No, you mustn’t!’” he recalls. “That was the moment it dawned on me: If I wouldn’t sell this to a family member, I shouldn’t be selling it to anybody, right?” Today, he insists on making sure the product or service he sells is right for its intended audience. “(It’s) your duty of care to them, to you, for your sanity, for your reputation and longevity.”