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John Potter: Persuasion and influencing

John Potter: Persuasion and influencing

Professor John Potter advises Queen's Young Leaders on persuasion, influencing and negotiation

Professor John Potter is a psychologist and expert in persuasion, influencing and negotiation. He says that to persuade someone of your own point of view, you need to understand what matters to them and what their values are. So the secret of persuasion is not talking, but listening.

Read the short version of this article – persuasion and influencing do's and don'ts: Quick tips for Queen's Young Leaders


“We have two ears and one mouth, which should be used in that ratio.”

The quality of listening can vary of course – from giving someone your full attention, to waiting for them to stop speaking while you plan the next thing you want to say. John recommends that you listen attentively.

“Open your ears and mentally sum up what the person is saying, and become aware of their possible intention.”

A gentle smile will encourage someone to talk frankly. “Smiling slightly, when the other person makes a point, is a technique often used by television interviewers to draw out the person they are interviewing.”  

And once you’ve understood what’s important to the other person, John says, “Focus the conversation on those issues rather than what you want to talk about.”


Listening and understanding is vital if you are going to establish rapport with the other person, which is necessary even if you don’t like them.

“Rapport is all about the other person thinking and feeling that you are like them,” John explains. “Imagine you are that other person and become aware of what it would be like to be them.” 

He says that to build rapport, you should use the other person’s words and copy the tone and pace of their voice – not simultaneously, but when it’s your turn to speak.

“Match their eye contact. If it is almost constant, you do the same. If they look away or in a particular direction, copy their behaviour. Try to copy their body language, gestures, seating position etc. Try to make yourself as much like the other person as possible.”

But be sure to do this in a gentle rather than obvious manner.

Body language

Albert Mehrabian is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles. His research demonstrates that in most conversations we are influenced 7% by words, 38% by tone of voice and a staggering 55% body language.

Body language is powerful but can be difficult to assess. Individual gestures are difficult to read. “A lack of eye contact could mean someone is being evasive or that they are simply tired,” says John, adding that it is more useful to look at clusters of body signals.  

“These are invariably unconscious reactions on the part of the other person which give a good indication of what they are thinking and feeling. For example a person with arms folded and legs crossed is probably closed to the idea being suggested.”

To get a true picture of how someone is feeling, you have to look at how all these factors – words, tone of voice, gestures, posture, eye movements, etc ­– come together. “Look for the congruence between words, how they are said. And body clusters, where they are open or closed.”


John has relied on the skills outlined above in some of the most stressful situations imaginable – negotiating for the lives of hostages.

He says, “Hostage negotiation is about influencing the hostage taker to make the decision that their behaviour is not going to bring about the results they desire.”

In this type of scenario, it is essential to assess the situation accurately and work out what might develop. This requires lengthy dialogue with the hostage taker, using listening skills to build rapport.

“We like negotiators to form a strong relationship with the hostage taker so that they bond together and establish common ground. It’s essential to realise that what matters to you may not be important to the other side, and vice versa.”

The same is true of negotiating with anyone – from the very ordinary citizen to the very powerful.

John says you have to start by deciding:

  1. what you want to get from the person in an ideal world
  2. to what extent you’d be happy to compromise, or what position you’d be happy to accept
  3. and what would ultimately make you walk away from making a deal.

Again, rapport is the key to success. “If you can get the other person to like you by giving them the impression you are on the same wavelength,” says John, “that is powerful – whether they have more power than you or are lacking in power. Again, use their words and expressions to explain things. And make good use of stories.”


The power of storytelling should not be underestimated. Human beings have used stories to make sense of the world since the dawn of humanity. Companies know this, and have been using stories in television advertisements to sell us their products for decades.

Stories pull people in, make them empathise with the protagonist, and help them remember key points that you may wish to convey.

“Use stories, metaphors, examples and illustrations,” says John, “to build mental pictures in the other person’s mind.”

John explains the technique of ‘Feel, Felt, Found’ helps to prevent a conversation descending into argument.

“Rather than tell a person they are wrong, create a story that says, ‘I know how you feel. Many other people have felt the same. What they usually find however is that…’ and so on.”

Sensitivity and understanding

Persuasion, influence and negotiation can be difficult at the best of times, but it can be especially challenging when dealing with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or have mental health issues.

John says the same rules apply. “When dealing with a disturbed person or someone with PTSD, the key thing is to ensure that they understand that you have a good sense of where they are coming from, and what they have been through.”

Neuroscience – the science of the brain – shows that such individuals are particularly sensitive.

“If we threaten their status, deal with issues in a very ambiguous way, appear over controlling, unfriendly or unfair in our dealings, that can raise stress levels and cause problems.”  

So it’s important to do the opposite.

“Boost the other person’s sense of self-worth. Provide a degree of certainty. Allow them some control over the situation. Be pleasant to deal with and operate in a way that seems fair. Then things will improve.”


But how do you persuade or influence someone, who may be prejudiced against you from the outset? You may not be perceived as an equal because of your gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, for example.

John emphasises the importance of cultural intelligence or ‘cultural quotient’ – the awareness that cultures and backgrounds affect how people behave.

“Cultural quotient is increasingly important in our global village,” he says, “to show that we appreciate difference particularly in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so forth.”

When dealing with someone who is prejudiced, John suggests that it may be helpful to try to identify some common ground, “examples to show that you understand where they are coming from”.

He advises against challenging the values of someone you’re trying to persuade, or being negative about their beliefs, which will only alienate them.

“See persuasion as a process,” he says, “part of developing a longer-term relationship.”   

Persuasion and influencing do's and don'ts: Quick tips for Queen's Young Leaders