Is it Possible to Be Persuasive and Humble?

Persuasion & Influence. Those are two of the most requested qualities I hear leaders either question if they have enough of it or ask to learn how to develop it.

If you’re wondering the same for yourself, the first step is to answer this: How often do you question your own convictions?

If your answer was, “quite a lot” – congratulations! You are probably more persuasive than you think! If you answered, “sometimes” you have an opportunity to develop that persuasive muscle. If you’d like to learn more about why you believe just about everything you think, go here.

“A hallmark of wisdom is knowing when it’s time to abandon some of your most treasured tools, and some of the most cherished parts of your identity.” – Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (Viking, 2021)

Whether you are a people-leader or individual contributor, you’ve probably noticed that even highly intelligent people are prone to bias that prevent them from changing their mind about a strongly held conviction.

This stems, in part, from the way our brains categorize new information so that it can store and retrieve it later. When we do retrieve that information, we must re-examine it, which can be especially challenging for highly intelligent people. You see, we must search for reasons why we might be wrong, rather than being right, and adjust our understanding and convictions accordingly.

Fortunately, as organizational psychologist Adam Grant, PhD, writes in the Harvard Business Review (March-April 2021) article, “Persuading the Unpersuadable,” it is possible for know-it-alls to learn something new (or unlearn something), for the most stubborn to change course, the narcissistic to demonstrate empathy, and the contrarian to accept and support new or different information.

Let’s look at how you might go about persuading the know-it-all and the narcissistic.

Persuading the Arrogant

Have you ever tried to explain a complex subject to a know-it-all?

Depending on your knowledge, understanding, and skill level, it can be a real lesson in humility. There’s nothing like walking someone through a process to help us identify our own gaps. And it’s a great technique to overcome arrogance. Rather than point out ignorance directly, ask the know-it-all to walk you through the explanation step-by-step. (yes, this does require a healthy dose of humility)

Persuading the Narcissist

While narcissism involves arrogance, it can go beyond attitude to action, including hostility and aggression. (We’ve all seen examples of narcissists pulling down others in order to stand above them.) However, one of the myths of narcissism is low self-esteem.

According to researchers, narcissism involves high, but unstable, self-esteem. So, when you appeal to their need to be admired with praise and respect, they feel more secure and open-minded. But as Grant suggests, what and how you make your appeal are critical.

“Don’t bury criticism between two compliments… narcissists are especially likely to ignore the criticism altogether,” advises Grant. Instead, offer praise for something unrelated to the topic.

For example, don’t pair a decision change request with a decision making skill compliment, rather, pair the request with genuine praise for other skills or attributes, like creativity or athleticism.

Another myth about narcissism is an inability to experience and demonstrate humility. However, narcissists can, and do. Draw on this understanding. When we feel more secure, selfishness and aggression are reduced, and we are more open to hearing other perspectives.

So, yes, you can be persuasive and humble simultaneously. In fact, humility is the foundation of persuasiveness.

Communicating with influence and integrity doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. I coach leaders to connect with their own quiet strength and power that comes from recognizing they belong in leadership.  

Let’s explore ways for you to navigate your leadership path from the strength of who you are.