Start with flattery, maintain eye contact and never lie: how to win people over | Life and style

Some people are just charmers. They can sweet-talk an otherwise immovable doorman, cajole a small child into picking up their toys without protest, and smile their way to a freebie. But being a blagger isn’t the preserve of a select few loudmouths and self-aggrandising entrepreneurs; highly persuasive people walk among us. I know, I married one.

Lost the receipt? No matter; my nice, softly spoken husband somehow gets the item returned. A complimentary upgrade to business class? It has been known. He’s particularly astute at getting let off the hook – having a missed appointment fee waived, say. There was even the incident where he smashed a bus window (an accident, he maintains) and the bus company sent him a letter to apologise.

He’s not famous and he’s not rich; he’s just a nice man with the gift of the gab. It helps that in his line of work – running film and photo shoots – there is a lot of asking people to do things, so his persuasion skills are continually sharpened.

But how exactly do highly persuasive people like him do it? What are their secrets?

Flatter – and understand what makes the other person tick

Dan Jackson has been a TV and radio producer for 20 years and is skilled at persuading people – famous or not – to feature in productions ranging from The South Bank Show and BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief to Jeremy Kyle. “I spend time speaking to every potential guest, getting to know their story or perspective.” This makes the person feel wanted.

Then, when it’s time to make the ask, Jackson lays it out clearly. “Everything is a transaction. I tell them, ‘This is what you’ll get out of it,’ hopefully knowing from our chats what will appeal.” It might be the chance to take their ideas to a bigger audience.

Sometimes, a guest will change their mind. “The first thing I say is, ‘This is going to be worse without you.’ If it’s for a debate and I’m talking to an academic, I’d say, ‘If you’re not here the other person gets to control the debate and your perspective is vital.’ Reinforce how valid their opinion is.”

Build rapport, and never break a promise

The reason flattery helps is it builds rapport. Rapport – that sense of mutual understanding and interest – is the foundation of all persuasion. “First you get people to like you, then you get them to trust you,” says Suzanne Williams, a hostage negotiator. “If you get caught lying, things are never the same again. So never break your promises.”

Active listening is key to building rapport. That means showing that you hear people. “Maintain eye contact,” she says. “The occasional nod of the head is important, as is labelling how people feel, so add: ‘That must have been upsetting.’” But try to avoid phrases such as “I understand,” Williams says. “They might say or think, ‘How could you possibly understand?’ You’re better off saying, ‘As I understand it,’ or, ‘If I understand correctly, this should help your situation.’”

Read the other person’s responses. If they don’t like a phrase, be sure not to use it again. “Pay attention to things like whether they are fidgeting, or avoiding eye contact. It could mean they are losing confidence in your conversation.”

Be genuine

Emma Serlin, founder of communications consultancy London Speech Workshop, says the art of persuasion depends on being genuine. Fixed rules about posture or stock phrases to use are therefore rubbish, she believes, “Because you need to deliver like yourself, you need to be real.”

Serlin’s work involves offering her clients – such as employees at the NHS or Waitrose – “strategies” for persuasion. A good starting point is flattery, or “making the soil fertile”. One of Serlin’s employees planned to quit after winning lottery money. “She wanted to write a children’s book,” she says. Serlin wished that her employee to stay, but didn’t want to sound like she was being down on the woman’s dream, or diminishing her. So she offered her a halfway suggestion, which she presented as a benefit. “I told her she was great and that the book was going to be great. But I also told her: ‘Being a writer is difficult; let’s call this a sabbatical, not quitting.’” It kept the door open, for the time being.

Illustration: Giulio Bonasera/The Guardian

Choose your words wisely

For Priya Chaudhary, a talent manager who mostly represents internet celebrities, being delicate is crucial. Her clients need to feel she believes in them, so she has to choose her words carefully if, say, she needs to steer a celebrity away from a harebrained idea.

She recalls needing to persuade a (white) wealthy reality TV star away from his big idea: to write a memoir about wearing a Saudi Arabian thobe (the traditional ankle-length robe) for a few weeks. “He said he was overcome by the desire to embrace Saudi dress,” Chaudhary says. This whim had come out of nowhere. Her approach? Flatter him to show that she “gets” the client, by saying: “I totally understand the intensity with which you must have felt that powerful connection,” before assigning the criticism to an unspecified person(s) by adding, “but I don’t want your passion to be misunderstood, with accusations of fetishising a culture.”

Be prepared

“Craft open questions,” says hostage negotiator Williams. “So instead of asking, ‘Do you have a timeline?’ ask, ‘What is your timeline?’ as it prompts them to give more information.” It also makes the conversation feel less of an interrogation and more equal and open.

Never arrive at any negotiation unprepared. “That means knowing what facts and information you’re going to use, knowing what the meeting is about, knowing any important history between you. And never discuss politics, health or death,” as it can instantly destroy the rapport.

Does all this work away from the high-stakes world of hostage negotiation? “Absolutely,” Williams says: “I recently had to negotiate a new contract with my mobile provider, and halfway through the conversation I’m thinking: I should have researched what deals other companies were offering.”

She got the contract she wanted in the end.

Be ready to compromise

“You’ve got to anticipate compromise,” Williams says, “because if you’re prepared for it, you’re more likely to make sure it’s in your favour.”

This is how Rocco Santoro keeps his restaurant harmonious. The general manager of Kolae, an acclaimed Thai restaurant in London’s Borough Market, is sometimes called on to mediate between customers and staff. He begins with active listening: “When there is a confrontation, it’s usually because one side is not listening. So I really take in what they are saying, no matter how long it takes.” Complaints range from a customer getting upset because their table for two can’t be made a table for five, to issues with certain ingredients. “Then I go about trying to solve the problem,” adds Santoro.

Level the power imbalance

Whether you are talking to your superior at work, or you are the boss due to status or expertise, rapport and trust can be elusive, so the best thing to do is to engage as equals. That’s something Martin Stagg knows well. He has been a GP for more than three decades and has documented his experiences in a forthcoming book, The Real Doc Martin.

“I remember one patient had abdominal pain. I was telling him I thought he had gallstones and he wasn’t accepting it. He said: ‘Well, your guess is as good as mine, doc.’ I said, ‘I’m rather hoping it’s a bit better than that.’” Stagg recalls the patient’s sweet, and genuinely earnest reply. “He said, ‘Don’t put yourself down, doc. I’m sure yours is as good as mine.’”

Is there not a risk the patient loses faith in you if you accept there are limits to your own knowledge? No, says Stagg. “The patrician style – doctor telling the patient what’s best – has been shown to be less effective.” He says “engaging as equals” and bringing the patient into decisions on how best to manage a condition is the better way. This is because they are more likely to stick with a plan that’s been designed around their lives, rather than handed down to them by someone in authority.

Tell a good story

Eldin Hasa is a business coach with an interest in neuroscience. Storytelling, he says, can be helpful in helping people make sense of complex science or numbers. One of his clients, a startup in the crowded world of health and wellness brands, was in urgent need of funding but struggling to cut through.

The chief executive decided to change tack and instead lead each presentation not with his own words but those of a customer who had used the wellness products to help her cope during cancer treatment. “The heartfelt testimony became the catalyst,” says Hasa. They met their funding targets and were able to expand – not through bar graphs and spreadsheets, but through the moving story of a real, inspiring woman.

Tailor your behaviour

One thing that Hasa has noted is that applying the same methods all the time is a recipe for disaster. The skill, he says, is tailoring the message to the audience, “to resonate with their needs”.

He recalls a story of a man picking a fight with him and his pregnant wife during a walk in the park. Rather than return his aggression, Hasa simply asked, with genuine concern, “Are you all right?”

“At first he continued shouting, but I maintained my calm demeanour. Within minutes, we were shaking hands and even exchanged a heartfelt hug.”

In a business meeting, when thrashing out a property contract seemed intractable, Hasa took the showmanship route. “I dramatically stood up, locked the office door, and declared that we would not leave until the sale was agreed and the contracts were exchanged.” It did the trick; soon enough, everyone involved felt happy to go with Hasa’s recommendations.