Ever since Abigail was little we’ve had a tradition of going to Panera Bread for some good food, drink and father-daughter talk. We usually each get sesame seed bagels with butter but she likes her bagel warmed up in the microwave whereas I prefer mine toasted. She’s my kid but we are a little different.
A few weeks ago we stopped by Panera for lunch before Abigail headed to watch her high school play. As we ate and talked she was telling me about a book she was reading for her youth group, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. I was interested to hear what she had to say because The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one the most impacting books I’ve ever read. She informed me that adults who write books for teens just don’t get it. I asked why and she went on to say, “If kids did all the things adults told us to do we wouldn’t be kids, we’d just be little adults.” You can imagine the interesting conversation ensued.
Another principle of influence that comes into play when there’s uncertainty is the principle of authority. When we’re not sure what to do quite often we look for the advice of those who are more knowledgeable than we are. More often than not following the lead of experts helps our decision making.
What Abigail seemed to be saying in a roundabout way was teens don’t necessarily look to adults – authorities – on how to live and act. She’s right, teens take most of their cues from each other and that’s why when we were young mom or dad would ask us, “If everyone else was [fill in the blank] would you?” And we all knew the right answer, “No mom, I wouldn’t [fill in the blank] just because everyone else is.”
Quite often people ask me, “If consensus and authority both apply when there’s uncertainty is one better than the other when it comes to persuasion?” My answer is a firm, “Yes, but it depends.”
In general, if there are facts and stats from experts that apply to the situation you’re facing then bringing authority to bear is probably the right call because it’s hard to argue with empirical data. However, if the situation is more a question of taste or preference then you’d do well to look for ways to bring consensus into the conversation because people feel more comfortable doing what others are doing.
For example, when it comes to investing your money you’re probably better off asking what financial advisors have to say rather than what the neighbors are doing. Consensus will still be a motivator but not nearly as strong for most people as is the word of an authority.
Another example might be fashion. When it comes to fads what everyone else is doing or wearing will be more persuasive for most people as opposed to talking about what a particular fashion designer or magazine has to say. Again, it’s not that those authorities won’t impact decision making. They certainly could but they’re not likely to be as motivating as consensus.
Back to Abigail and books for teens; what should authors do? Why not collaborate with teens to produce something for teens? The authority could give some guidance but by and large the material would come from peers. As adults we were all teens and our desire is good – we want to help teens avoid some of the mistakes we made. The problem is kids think we don’t understand them because, “You were a teenager like a million years ago!”
Here’s my advice – don’t fight the wave, look for ways to ride it safely to shore. That comes with understanding who you’re trying to persuade and which principles will be most effective. Start looking for ways to do that and it’s a good bet you’ll enjoy more success than you currently do.
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.