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Science & Research

Relationship or Just Rapport? Here’s How to Know.

When we talk about the importance of the Friendship Trigger as a foundation for influence and persuasion, we’re focused on the development of trust. The extent to which this can be accomplished in brand relationships, e.g. through media and marketing, is more limited than what’s possible in direct business relationships, but critical nonetheless – the Clinton campaign, for example, used some savvy communication techniques to try and activate the Friendship Trigger as part of their initial announcement media.

In direct business relationships there’s a wide gap between developing a relationship and merely establishing rapport. Rapport is about manners, personal style, and respect – vital precursors to relationship building, but essentially superficial; not enough of a foundation to establish trust and lay the groundwork for influence and persuasion.

So, how do you know when you’ve graduated from rapport to relationship?

According to a recent article in the Harvard Gazette citing a new report from researchers at Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, and INSEAD, the European business school, the test of whether you’ve actually succeeded in establishing a relationship may be sarcasm.

That’s right, sarcasm.

“To create or decode sarcasm,” explained Harvard researcher Francesca Gino, “both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to overcome the contradiction (i.e., psychological distance) between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions.” In other words, the conversational participants need to be able to interpret – and believe – the intended message beyond the apparent one. And confidence in that interpretation requites a single important factor: trust.

Money quote:

“…for the first time, our research proposed and has shown that to minimize the relational cost while still benefiting creatively, sarcasm is better used between people who have a trusting relationship.” 

We’ve all been there. We’re inspired to express something sarcastically, but stop ourselves – ostensibly to wonder whether it will be “taken the right way.” According to the new research, that moment may be an ideal test for the perceived level of trust between individuals, and its implications for whether or not a true relationship has been established. If you feel entirely comfortable using sarcasm with no hesitation, chances are you’ve got a relationship. If that little voice in your head stops you, you’ve probably got some relationship-building work left to do.

Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient

The story of Phineas Gage himself would be fascinating enough without the century-and-a-half of mythology and obsession that have flourished around the tale of this 19th century railroad foremen whose skull was impaled by an iron rod at the speed of a bullet, and lived for almost a dozen years afterward. Slate has an engrossing account of Gage and the inquiries and theories that have proliferated across various scientific communities ever since.

One of the most interesting aspects of the latest scientific conclusions about Gage’s accident and ultimate recovery is that because the injuries were sustained in the pre-frontal cortex rather than the limbic brain, where the amygdala resides, Gage was for all intents and purposes entirely functional. This astonished the medical profession at the time, and for more than a century thereafter.

For those of us familiar with the most recent scientific inquiry into the emotional brain, however, it isn’t all that surprising. As we reveal in The 7 Triggers to Yes, injuries sustained to the limbic brain render subjects utterly incapable of making even the most rudimentary decisions. Many basic daily functions are compromised under such conditions. Injuries to outer portions of the brain, on the other hand, may be responsible for many other types of afflictions, including sometimes severe personality changes, but basic functional behavior is often unaffected.

If he wasn’t the first, Phineas Gage was at least the most celebrated example of the human brain’s capacity for plasticity and recovery – as long as the trauma doesn’t impact the emotional centers.

Logic is Good… For Losing.

Several large surveys show that most people believe a logical discussion, with good data and the right logical supporting facts, is the best way to influence or persuade. Often, they break the process down to three main steps:

  1. Present your proposition clearly, with conviction.
  2. Present your supporting data, with the right facts, logic and information.
  3. Structure your “deals” and move on to closure.

But according to Dr. Jay Conger, Director of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California Business School, “Following this process is one surefire way to fail at persuasion.”


Neuroscientists have recently discovered that the brain waves we emit when we engage in logical thinking (for example, when we solve a math problem) are virtually identical to those we emit when we are forced to plunge our hands and arms into ice water. It’s painful! Further, these researchers have determined that our brains require 300 percent more effort—measured in calories burned—for heavy thinking, compared with “mental cruising.”

No wonder people hate a logical, reasoned approach!

Luckily for us, our brains are hard-wired with mechanisms that help us make good decisions without painstaking analysis and reasoning. These mechanisms are known as triggers, but you can also think of them as “instincts” or “gut reactions.” Essentially, they are the decision-making shortcuts we easily and naturally employ all day long. They are our automatic self-guidance systems. We often don’t even realize we’re using them!

Put simply triggers are our navigational aids. They help us make easy, non-analytical, yet correct decisions. There are seven major triggers we all depend on to help us easily make quick, automatic and right decisions. One example is the consistency trigger. Here’s how it works. We all have a kind of database in our brains that records past thoughts and actions. This database provides a roadmap for future decisions. When faced with a decision, our brain does an instantaneous search, and we are oriented to act in a way that is consistent with our past actions.

In short, we do what we’ve done before. A citizen who’s voted for the conservative slate in the past will usually do so again, without bothering to seriously analyze the rhetoric of all the candidates running. Spenders make decisions to keep spending, savers tend to decide again and again to save. Cautious people take careful actions, risk tolerant people do not.

That’s not to say that logic has no place in decision-making. But logic tends to come later, after the decision-maker has responded to his or her internal triggers. For example, when people are in the market for a house, they’re often attracted to one that “feels right.” (Maybe it reminds them of a place where they used to live?) Later, when they’re discussing the house with others, they’ll talk about more logical aspects—the great neighborhood, easy access to the highway, a good school system, etc.

Now, what does this mean for you, the persuader?

Knowledgeable persuaders don’t force persuasion partners into icy water! Skilled people don’t demand 300% more energy for decisions. They help their partners make good decisions by learning what they want, doing the heavy thinking, then determining how to position the discussion.

Skilled persuaders evaluate which of the seven triggers that will apply to another person. Then they carefully frame and deliver a presentation based on those triggers. They use facts and figures, only when needed, to support a triggers-based decision.

An example: We have a client who boasted that his company was successful because he was able to make and implement decisions quickly. An astute sales rep wrapped up her presentation to this CEO by saying, “Charlie, you mentioned that you like to make quick decisions—will that be the case here?” Essentially, the rep set up a prime situation for the consistency trigger to operate. The CEO had to be consistent with his prior statement, and the consistency trigger resulted in a handshake, and a $50,000 profit!

The formula is fundamental: Employ the seven triggers, the client’s navigation system for making correct decisions. Use facts, figures, and logic only when needed to reinforce a triggers-based decision. It may be the opposite of what you’re used to—but it’s a surefire way to win at persuasion.

The Most Researched, Most Misunderstood, Most Important Skill

Aristotle considered it a “human failing” that persuasion might involve an emotional appeal, and sought to elevate the value of logic and reason. What we now know is that Aristotle was in a no-win battle with biology.

Take a trip back to the Fifth Century B.C., when Athenians were experimenting with a new form of government. The Athenians quickly discovered that to succeed in a democracy, they had to be persuasive. Leaders used persuasion (then called rhetoric) to gain agreement and win support. Everyday citizens used persuasion before a new legal body—the jury.

Recognizing its importance, Athenian scholars, including Plato and Aristotle, began to study the powerful process of persuasion. Circa 435 B.C., they defined three elements of the process of persuasion: Logos, the appeal to logic, reason, and facts; Pathos, the appeal to emotions; and Ethos, the appeal of the speaker’s character and credibility. These scholars found that one or more of these appeals characterize any instance of persuasion.

Aristotle wrote three books about persuasion. Among his conclusions, he stated that logic is the most reliable appeal, and that it is a “human failing” that people sometimes tend to be persuaded less by logic and more by emotion. Scientists are now learning precisely why appeals to logic can be so unproductive. And they’ve learned that Aristotle had it all backward when he defined logic as the most reliable appeal to persuasion.

In ancient Greece, persuasion proved to be enormously effective in politics, commerce, jurisprudence and everyday life—so much so, that when the Romans conquered Greece, they continued to study and apply the skill of persuasion. Caesar Augustus became a master persuader. He magnificently used the Ethos appeal, starting every speech with the phrase “Vini, Vidi, Vici.” I came, I saw, I conquered. By establishing who he was and why people should listen to him, he was able to quickly win their support.

Fast forward to the U.S.A. in 1940s and ’50s. Explosive post-war economic growth led to more research into how people could make good things happen through others. Writers produced a spate of books based on the groundbreaking research of Carl I. Hovland of Yale University. Many other prestigious universities and business schools also initiated research into the science, art and skill of persuasion. The race for knowledge on how to gain agreement, compliance, to get to YES was on in earnest!

Politicians of that era also realized that the greatest power in the world was the power to persuade. Even President Harry Truman understood how central persuasion was to his ability to lead. “I sit here all day trying to persuade people,” he said. “That’s all the powers of the President amount to.” Condoleezza Rice added to this from her own position of power, “Power is nothing unless you can turn it into influence.”

In time, new and exciting facts about persuasion continued to appear. In the 1980s, Dr. Robert Cialdini, Arizona State University’s Regents Professor of Psychology, conducted extensive research into the emotional “triggers” of persuasion. By the late 90s, his book, Influence – the Psychology of Persuasion, had become Amazon.com’s best-selling business book. Soon, Harvard Business School and other leading institutions were offering executive courses in persuasion skills.

Today the quest for persuasion knowledge continues at warp speed. While some scientists are unraveling the human genome, defining how our chromosomes and DNA affect our physical bodies, others are unraveling the secrets of the brain, exploring how it processes decision-making information.

In this vein, Jay Conger, Director of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California School of Business, tells us why research into the “how to” of persuasion is so critical: “Today’s business contingencies make persuasion more necessary than ever,” he says. “Many businesspeople misunderstand persuasion and more still underutilize it.”

The art and science of persuasion continues to attract the world’s best minds. Why? Because today’s leaders need to know:

  • How do I motivate others to act?
  • How do I produce agreement, compliance, and results?
  • How do I generate change?
  • How do I make important things happen with and through others?
  • How do I sell my ideas, my products, and my services?
  • How do I trigger YES?

The brilliant minds of antiquity had many answers, and today’s scientists have even more. According to New York University Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, “The amygdala [the emotional part of the brain] has a greater influence on the cortex [the thinking part] than the cortex has on the amygdala, allowing emotion to dominate and control thinking.”

Similarly, the book and the PBS series “The Secret Life of the Brain” (funded principally by the National Science Foundation) distills the entire 2,500 years of persuasion research into a single sentence:

We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.

History and modern science agree. To persuade successfully, we must appeal to the listener’s inborn, hard-wired need to satisfy emotional needs and wants. We must frame our presentations to appeal to specific shortcuts, the triggers embedded in each of our brains. We must learn to work with the other person’s brain rather than against it as we have been doing for 2,500 years.

The brilliant minds of Greece and Rome recognized the need for persuasion, and set forth fundamental guidelines. Today’s scientists and researchers have defined the specific process that our brains use to make decisions. For the first time, we understand how to work with, not against, the brain’s decision-making process to help others make easy, non-analytical, yet correct decisions.

Today persuasion is more critical than ever. And for the first time we are learning how to persuade efficiently. For the first time we can see, in vivo, in real time, the brain’s blood, oxygen and neuron flows as it responds to decision stimuli. We can see distinct brain elements “light up” as they are brought into play. The exciting news is that we finally understand the persuasion process, a process we’ve been doing poorly for 2,500 years. And that understanding enables us to produce YES, agreement, action and results with and through others.

For the first time in history, we have the scientifically documented breakthrough to quickly, easily produce YES, and the results we want and need from others.