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It Takes More Than Saying 'Pretty Please'
Business Schools Teach the Art of Persuasion

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ever come out of a meeting wishing that you, too, could persuade people the way that silver-tongued co-worker of yours can?

Many workers assume that their powers of persuasion are innate. But some recent research shows that these skills can be learned. And not only can they be learned, but they should be learned for today's workplace.

The workplace has changed from a hierarchical structure to a more horizontal one, with teams of people of various positions. Workers are expected to be involved in many decisions and help push a company's agenda, no matter their title.

In the past, "you could give people orders," said Robert Bontempo, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School who will teach a course on persuasion in the school's executive MBA program this summer. "Now, even in the military, you have to work in cross-functional teams."

More business schools are building soft skills such as persuasion into their curricula. "There are those who are going to be gifted in certain things," said Scott Koerwer, associate dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. But even if people aren't naturally persuasive, they can learn to be more so. "In order to have an effective, valuable society, you need these skills," Koerwer said.

Bontempo is basing his class on his years of study in psychology. If you understand how you, your co-workers and your bosses make decisions, he believes, you can use that to your advantage and give people the arguments that speak most to them. "There are lots of people who can calculate the net present value five ways," said Bontempo. "But not many who can build a consensus for ideas."

To illustrate how persuasiveness can be taught, Bontempo walked me through part of the class. One approach he takes is dividing people into two types of assertiveness. After speaking with me for about 15 minutes, Bontempo told me I was "ask assertive," or cautious and reserved about sharing opinions, questioning, low key and quiet. The other type is "tell assertive," or opinionated, forceful, tending to direct the actions of others.

He, I recognized quickly, is "tell assertive" -- he told me not to write this column as if his ideas were coming from a self-help guru.

Understanding such traits is important in learning the art of persuasion. They are behaviors we can learn to change, Bontempo argues. Say you're tell assertive and you boss is ask assertive. When trying to win her over to your way of thinking, it's best to tone it down a bit and ask questions instead of making statements.

It can be hard to figure out what kind of decision-maker your client or boss is, but there are ways. Focus on observable behaviors, Bontempo said. Does he make fewer statements when you meet with him? Lean back and make fewer movements with his hands? Then he is probably ask assertive. Those who are tell assertive typically speak loudly, use their hands for emphasis, lean forward and talk a lot. Considering these traits will help you predict how, for instance, you should propose something to your boss.

Bontempo's course is part of a new Columbia program based on psychology and the social sciences -- something that, until recently, was a rarity in business school. Or at least came in a very distant second to courses in marketing, finance and strategy.

The idea for the program came from businesses and former students, said Associate Dean Troy Eggers. "They shared with us that not only do people need technical skills, but they also need the soft skills that can engage people of different backgrounds, cultures and learning styles to lead teams and to execute upon a plan with support rather than opposition."

Other business schools are seeing the same things Columbia is. For years, many have offered courses on teamwork and leadership, of which persuasion is a part. Koerwer said the Smith school's courses, such as Integration and Teamwork, Culture and Ethics and Communication, evolve constantly, depending on what is important in today's workplace.

Mark Dresdner, the senior director of revenue strategies worldwide for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, based in White Plains, N.Y., decided to sign up for this summer's Columbia persuasion class to "help me be less combative and persuade people in softer ways to get their buy in," he said. "I think my style now is very objective and logical, whereas I think a lot of people I deal with tend to be less linear in their thinking. So I need to be better able to relate to people who may be more emotional in their decisions."

Dresdner, an "academic at heart," received his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he said he learned how better to work in teams, something he carried over into his career. So, he said, he is a believer that softer skills can be taught.

Persuasion is next on his list.

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