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"Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood actor, played both bad cop and good cop."

Reagan’s Power of Persuasion

Ronald Reagan was by any account a mass of contradictions. This may well have contributed to his success as a negotiator and a persuader.

The descriptions by colleagues and contemporaries of his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at the Geneva Summit in 1985 amount to an exemplary case study of either remarkable good luck, the sheer force of personality, brilliant technique in persuasion, or perhaps all three.

In addition to an array of negotiation best practices – have your opponent come to you; appear both more casual and better dressed; be extraordinarily well-prepared – Reagan used one of the 7 key persuasion triggers in a very particular and very effective way.

Here’s the Geneva Summit clip. Can you identify which trigger Reagan activated and how?

Reagan’s success at seducing and swaying Gorbachev, in getting the Soviet leader’s sympathies and camaraderie, is credited to the American president’s ability to be “genuine, authentic, human;” an approach traditionally rejected by conservative American politicians of the era. Reagan’s charismatic “high beams,” as son Ron puts it, were in full force, and won over an initially intransigent Gorbachev.

But there’s a critical factor of the victory missing in this calculation. The legitimate fear on the part of U.S. political leadership was that such a strategy would be seen as weak. Ineffectual. Ingratiating. And, had Reagan proceeded right off the bat with this attitude or approach, such fears may well have been realized.

But the president didn’t do that.

Reagan began the conference with a harsh scrutiny of the Soviet legacy on the world stage. He held forth with such a litany of critiques that Gorbachev was forced to chastise the American president for acting like a prosecutor and treating him like a student.

Then, and only then, did Reagan turn on the charm.

What did he do here? The president set an adaptation level. He first established himself as a critic, a hardliner; not to be trifled with; an emissary of rancor and distrust. Then, he flipped the board. Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood actor, played both bad cop and good cop. And thereby activated…

The Contrast Trigger

All decisions are influenced by context. For example, if you place your hand in a bucket of cold water, your hand feels cold. If you then place it in a bucket of water at room temperature, that water feels warm — warmer than it really is. You have adapted to the cold temperature and now make judgments that are different from those you’d make if you started by putting your hand in a bucket of hot water.

Scientists refer to this as your adaptation level. The human brain responds in a relative way, not an absolute way. This is one reason that logic, reason, and cognitive thought play less of a role in decision-making than we previously thought. Objective facts take a backseat to adaptation level comparisons and perceptions.

In making a persuasive presentation, the way you set up someone’s adaptation level determines your success.