Friday, August 13, 2010

The Power to Persuade - Empathy

In the summer of 1941 Sergeant James Allen Ward was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery for clambering onto the wing of his Wellington bomber and, while flying 13,000 feet above the North Sea, extinguishing a fire in the starboard engine. He was secured, at the time, by just a single rope tied around his waist. Some time later Winston Churchill summoned the shy and swashbuckling New Zealander to Number 10 Downing Street to congratulate him on his exploits. They got off to a shaky start. The fearless, daredevil airman, tongue-tied in the presence of the prime minister, was completely unable to field even the simplest of questions put to him. Churchill tried something different. “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence,” he began. “Yes, sir,” replied Ward. “I do.” “Then you can imagine,” Churchill said, “how humble and awkward I feel in yours.”

A brilliant double stroke of empathy—feeling the discomfort of his visitor and recasting it as though begging for the visitor to feel his—showed Churchill at his most disarming and persuasive. A warm, empathetic style will often convince people of your best intentions and bring them onboard. Empathy has been shown to be important in the doctor-patient relationship, in which physicians have to convince patients that they care about them and have their best interests at heart. This tactic not only makes for good medicine, it also has been shown to protect doctors from malpractice lawsuits.

In 2002 Nalini Ambady, now a professor of psychology at Tufts University, divided physicians into two groups: those who’d been dragged through the court and those who hadn’t. She made audiotapes of the doctors and their patients in session and then played the tapes to a group of students. The students were asked to determine which doctors had been sued. But there was a catch. For each of the recordings the output was “content-filtered.” All the students could hear was prosody: muffled, low-frequency garble, as if they were listening underwater. How, linguistically, would the doctors measure up? Could the students, on the basis of intonation alone, somehow distinguish one group from another? The results were unequivocal: they could tell them a mile off. The doctors who had been sued sounded way more self-important. They had a dominant, hostile, less empathic conversational style—whereas those who had not been sued sounded warmer. Forgive and forget? Live and let live? Only, it seems, if I like you.

The position of incongruity at the center of the SPICE model reflects its centrality to the idea of supersuasion. From calming someone down to raising someone’s spirits, from closing the deal to trying to bum a quarter from strangers on the street, defiance of expectation, script reversal, antithesis—call it what you will—lies at the very heart of supersuasion. Not only does incongruity enhance the aesthetic prowess of simplicity, it also knocks out the brain’s surveillance mechanisms and thereby enables the rest of the SPICE task force to secretly slip in under the radar and hotwire our neural pleasure centers.

Source of Information : Scientific American Mind March-April 2010

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