Being able to read people and read situations is one of the most important skills for anyone working in a knowledge-oriented job (and that includes you).

Let’s explore why.

Unless you are the all-powerful dictator of a sovereign republic, your work includes persuasion. Your job may include persuading customers, co-workers, members of the C-suite, vendors, bankers, government authorities… you name it, someone reading this article has to persuade that kind of person as part of their job.

Persuasion is not about convincing or explaining. When you try to convince someone of something, or explain something to them, you are presenting yourreasons for why they should agree with you, and this is no more effective than a sales pitch.

To persuade more effectively, you need to ditch your pitch and your explanations. Instead, find the other person’s reasons for wanting to agree with you.  They don’t care about your reasons, but they intensely care about their own reasons. One of your most important persuasion tasks is to discover those reasons.

My friend Nancy is an interior designer. She was visiting a dealer from whom she sometimes buys interesting, eclectic, imported antique pieces of furniture for her clients. She mentioned to the dealer that his warehouse looked very full, containing more merchandise than normal. He replied, “Yes, and I’ve got another container coming in next week.” Nancy sensed a bit of subtle apprehension and nervousness in the dealer’s voice, but didn’t say anything immediately.

As they toured the warehouse, looking at antique armoires, tables, chairs, nightstands, doors and decorative pieces, Nancy again noticed that the dealer seemed a bit on edge. She asked him if things were going well with the business, to which he replied, “Yes, all’s well.” He’s generally very talkative and willing to talk about his business, so this caught Nancy’s attention. She sensed that he was unwilling to admit to her that he was concerned about having enough cash to pay for the container coming next week. She also sensed an opportunity for both of them.

“I’m working with a couple who just bought a new house,” Nancy said. “I was thinking I might find one or two things here for them, but I think they’d love many of your pieces. If they agree to make a decision quickly and buy, let’s say, 15 or more pieces, do you think you’d be able to work with them on a discount?” The dealer’s eyes lit up. “When can you bring them in?”

Nancy returned the next day with her clients, who bought 23 pieces of furniture from the dealer, at a 50% discount. The dealer, who normally only discounts begrudgingly, thanked Nancy profusely. Nancy found a great opportunity for the dealer, her clients and herself because she was able to read the dealer and his situation with only subtle cues to go on.

The ability to read people and their situations is the key focus of Ditch the Pitch Habit #2, Size Up the Scene, from my book Ditch the Pitch. (You can learn more about Size Up the Scene in this article and this short video.)

Here are a few tips to help you read people and their situations more effectively when you are trying to persuade.

  • Focus on reading the person before you read their situation: Two people may face the same situation, but you may persuade them totally differently. Why? Because their personal interests and motivations may be different. Always focus on who before what, i.e., understand the person you are persuading before you seek to understand what your persuasive approach will be.
  • Understand how they see their situation: Try to understand their situation, but don’t stop there. Try to discern how this situation looks from their vantage point. How do they see it? How does it affect them? What do they most want to change?
  • Explore and Heighten: As you discover things your customer really cares about, focus the conversation on those things. This will not only engage your customer, it will encourage her to share more details about what really matters to her. At that point, reading her and her situation will only get easier.

No matter how good you are at reading people and their situations, you can get better. We all can. Practice this skill, and like Nancy, you’ll end up with some pretty good results.

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