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Persuasion: Mastering the Two Languages


Jim Mullen

January/February 2009, eSide Supply Management Vol. 2, No. 1

To broaden your understanding of how people take in information and make decisions during a negotiation, you must acknowledge that there are two equally important paths to persuasion: analytical and emotional. Mastering each requires you to speak a different language.

Many of us have a naive view of persuasion. Think back to your last negotiation — it probably started with a forceful statement of your position, followed by supporting rationale. Then, maybe you tried to reach agreement by relying on your logic, perseverance and personal influence to sway the other party to your position. Yet, while this scenario is familiar, we often find that we have failed at persuasion and squandered a good opportunity.

The purpose of this article is to broaden your understanding of how people take in information and make decisions during a negotiation. To enhance your ability to persuade the other party, it is critical to acknowledge that there are two equally important paths to persuasion — analytical and emotional — and each requires you to speak a different language. Savvy negotiators are masters of attitude and behavior change because they satisfy the needs of both the mind and the heart to win over the other party.

Art or Science?

According to Irish legend, those who kiss the Blarney Stone receive the gift of eloquence, which enables them to obtain anything they want through persuasion. Indeed, we have all met people who possess this gift. These born persuaders are naturals at capturing others' attention, influencing the undecided and winning over the opposed. The ease with which they sway others' decisions seems like an art form to those of us in possession of the usual allowance of eloquence and charisma. Unfortunately, like most artists, they are better at practicing their gift than explaining how they do it.

In reality, persuasion is both an art and a science. As a science, it requires a fundamental understanding of the way people evaluate information and shape their decisions. Thankfully, the research of behavioral scientists has demonstrated that persuasion works in predictable ways by satisfying deep-rooted human needs. Therefore, persuasion is a skill governed by basic scientific principles that can be learned, applied and mastered with practice. However, it is also an art in that it requires hard work, commitment and practice.

The Two Paths to Persuasion

To master the art of persuasion, negotiators must understand that there are two paths to persuasion. Both must be concurrently employed to successfully persuade the other side to agreement.

Behavioral scientists often call the first path the analytical path to persuasion. This path targets the basic human need to be accurate and rational. Persuasion tactics on this path are direct and focused on information, facts and data. Here, the other party is evaluating whether or not your arguments are convincing and strongly supported by facts to decide if they agree or disagree with you.

Two Paths Merge

The second path to persuasion is the emotional path, which targets the basic human need to be liked, approved of and respected. Persuasion tactics on this path are more delicate and geared toward activating an emotional, motivational response. Here, the other party is deciding if they are connecting with you on the right emotional level — in other words, whether or not you share common ground.

Many negotiators fail at persuasion because they only pursue one of these persuasion paths. They either attempt to schmooze or manipulate the emotions of the other party, or they rely solely on financial projections and data to frame their arguments. The key to persuasion is the simultaneous use of both paths. The other party will agree with you only when both fundamental needs — to be accurate and to be liked — are fulfilled.

How Not to Persuade

Negotiators who use only the analytical path perceive persuasion as a skill reserved only for selling products. They ignore the emotional path because they hold a negative stereotype of persuasion as something devious and to be avoided. True to form, public opinion polls which rank various sales jobs as the least trusted profession reinforce this stereotype.

While persuasion can certainly be misused in the form of deceptive, manipulative practices, it can also be constructively exercised and used to its full potential — quite the opposite of deception. True, persuasion involves influencing people to adopt your position; it does not, however, need to involve cajoling, pressuring or the use of threats.

Negotiators who support their case solely with numbers often find their arguments to be too abstract to be meaningful or memorable. Because numbers don't make an emotional impact, the other party's basic human need to be liked, approved of and respected goes unfulfilled.

On the other hand, negotiators who only take the emotional path might be able to connect in a heartfelt way, but the other party won't agree because the need for rationality and accuracy remains unfulfilled.

Suggested Reading

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.

Published in 2006, Influence provides an impressive overview of persuasion-related scientific research over the past few decades, plus advice on how to harness this knowledge to enhance negotiation skills.

Many negotiators assume their expertise is self-evident and mistakenly assume the other party recognizes and appreciates this. Their persuasive influence is weak because they haven't taken the time to establish their credibility, leaving the other party wondering if they can trust their perspectives and opinions. Credibility is the cornerstone of rational persuasion, but the other party won't acknowledge this simply because they like you; you must establish your credibility with your demonstrated expertise or past track record of success. Or, you can build it by providing convincing arguments supported by compelling evidence.

The Two Languages of Persuasion

A few key communication tactics can help you simultaneously satisfy both the mind and heart of the other party:

Rational language. In addition to facts, figures and data, use stories, analogies and metaphors to make your arguments come alive. Instead of just numbers, employ vivid language which adds a compelling and concrete quality to your point of view. Make sure you aim the content and flow of information in the negotiation to suit the other party's rational and emotional needs.

Emotional language. Beyond establishing rapport, common ground and an appealing climate for discussion, you must work hard to build your credibility, using concrete evidence of your side's expertise and prior track record. Remember, you'll need to earn or build the respect of the other party; it won't be granted simply because they like you on an emotional level.

As management guru Peter Drucker once noted, communication takes place in the mind of the listener, not the speaker. Successful negotiators share this philosophy and fluently speak the two languages of persuasion.

Jim Mullen

Jim Mullen is an assistant professor of management at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. To contact the author, please send an e-mail to

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