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[Teacher Tips] Using Simple Persuasion Techniques to Improve Your Relationships with Colleagues, Students, and Parents

Friday, September 29, 2017 -- Regina Waddell

Have you ever met someone who seemed to be able to get anyone to do anything he or she wanted? Whether it’s rounding up a group to attend an event, convincing others to contribute to a fundraiser, or enlisting help with a move (and let's be honest, no one enjoys that task), there are certain people who can consistently get others to sign up in droves. These people are charming and charismatic individuals, and whether they realize it or not, chances are that they regularly make great use of one or more scientifically proven persuasion techniques. The good news for the rest of us is that those techniques can be learned—and the even-better news for educators is that they can be incredibly effective in the classroom and the teachers’ lounge.

According to Robert Cialdini, author of Influence and president of Influence at Work, people (including your students, their parents, and your coworkers) don't necessarily consider all available information when deciding to say yes or no to something; instead, we use “shortcuts” to guide our decision-making. Through his research, Cialdini has concluded that there are six shortcuts that guide human behavior: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus. Let's take a look at each one, along with some ideas on how you can leverage this information to maximize your persuasiveness with administrators, colleagues, your students, and their parents.

1. Reciprocity - People feel obliged to give back when they have received. In a series of studies conducted in restaurants, servers who gave patrons a single mint along with the bill received a 3% boost in tips, and those who gave two mints received a 14% boost. If servers first gave one mint and then said something personal such as, “For you nice people, here’s an extra mint,” then they received a 23% increase in tips. Now, you may be thinking, "I don't tip more just because someone gives me a mint,” but according to science, you probably do.

  • Use this technique with administrators and colleagues - Be as helpful as possible whenever you can. It sounds simple, but for almost all of us, when life gets busy (or chaotic, or stressful, or just generally bogged down), we tend to stop volunteering our help when opportunities arise. Now, I'm not advocating that you overcommit yourself to chair committees or sign on for a big undertaking like starting an after-school club—just watch for opportunities to do little things to help others out. For instance, if there is a student whose parent is running late and the assistant principal (who needs to leave) is stuck babysitting, volunteer to stay with the student so that the assistant principal can leave. It's a nice thing to do, and it will win you some serious brownie points. Or, if your colleague in the classroom next door hasn't made it in yet and his or her students are waiting in the hall after the bell has rung, bring the students into your classroom for a few minutes until your coworker gets there. It doesn't cost you anything, but it saves him or her the embarrassment of an administrator possibly seeing students in the hallway, keeps the students from wandering off and getting into trouble, and once again, wins you favor. Then, watch the reciprocity kick in! The next time you are running late, need a place to send a student to finish an assignment, or request supplies from an administrator, your good deeds will be remembered, and you’ll be that much more likely to get an enthusiastic yes. Besides, who ever felt bad after doing something kind for a colleague?

2. Scarcity - The less available something is, the more people want it. In his “Science of Persuasion” video, Cialdini mentions that when British Airways announced in 2003 that it would be phasing out the twice-daily flight between London and New York on the Concorde supersonic airliner, sales the very next day took off. Nothing changed about the flight except that it had become scarce.

  • Use this technique with students - Want your students to sign up for a club or after-school tutoring? Let them know that there is a limited number of spots available (if this is true), and emphasize what they stand to lose if they don't join. Talk about the member-only benefits like field trips and fun experiments, and incorporate some type of limited-time offer. For instance, let students know that they have to join by a certain date and must attend the first meeting in order to be eligible to go on the first field trip or participate in the first fun activity.
  • Use this technique with parents - Get parents to register for parent conferences by sending home a schedule with blocks of time for them to select. Let them know that the sooner they turn in the form, the more likely they are to get their first choice of time. Add a little bit more urgency by blocking off the breaks you will take on the schedule with a label like "scheduled" or “unavailable” before you send it out. Showing parents visually that your time is finite will provide an effective reminder that’s it also valuable. 

3. Authority - People listen to credible, knowledgeable experts. In his “Science of Persuasion” video, Cialdini mentions a study showing that physiotherapists can get more patients to comply with recommended exercises if they display their medical diplomas on the wall, and people are more likely to give change for a parking meter to a complete stranger if that requester is wearing some type of uniform. Why? Because in both instances, the person making the request seemed credible.

  • Use this technique with parents - Want to persuade more parents to review homework and read with their children each night? Make sure that your degrees and certifications are displayed in your classroom during parent conferences, and find a way to slip your experience into the conversation as well. Gently reminding parents that you really are the expert when it comes to their child’s learning is an effective way to increase the likelihood that parents will comply with your requests.

4. Consistency - People want to be consistent with what they have previously said or done. To demonstrate this, Cialdini cites a famous set of studies in which residents of a neighborhood were asked to erect a wooden sign in their yards to encourage safe driving. In one neighborhood, very few residents agreed to put up the sign, but in a similar neighborhood nearby, four times as many people agreed to put up the sign. Why? Ten days previously, those in the second neighborhood had been asked to put a small postcard-sized sign in their front windows to support safe driving, and because it was such a small ask, many people agreed to do it. Because of that initial commitment, many more people said yes when they were later asked to put up the larger wooden sign. To use this strategy most effectively, try to gain small, voluntary, and public commitments first; it works even better if those commitments are in writing.

  • Use this technique with parents - Want more parents to volunteer to help out in the classroom, to participate in school events, or to chaperone field trips? Start by asking all parents to fill out a volunteer application at the beginning of the year. Let them know that by filling out the form now, they will be able to help out whenever they want without having to wait to be cleared. After parents have taken this initial step to demonstrate their interest in volunteering, they’ll be much more likely to agree to volunteer when you need them.
  • Use this technique with students - Want your students to turn in their homework? Instead of handing them a list of homework assignments for the week, make students write down their assignments (and due dates!) themselves in a planner or journal. In a recent study cited by Cialdini, a health clinic reduced missed appointments by 18% simply by having patients write down their appointment details on a reminder card themselves instead of having the office staff do it for them. Writing down the assignment is a small commitment that can lead to students actually completing the work.

5. Liking – This one is simple—people prefer to say yes to people who they like. So, if you want to be more persuasive, it’s important to take a hard look at how likeable you are. For some people, this is pretty easy, but for others, especially introverts who may be perceived as aloof or pretentious, it will take a little effort. There are three important factors that determine whether we like someone: we like people who are similar to us, we like people who give us compliments, and we like people who cooperate with us. Keep in mind that this isn’t a judgement of whether or not you’re a good person—it’s about evaluating the kind of impression your behavior leaves.

  • Use this technique with colleagues, administrators, and parents - Look for opportunities to give genuine compliments. This is easy and free, and it makes those around you feel better about themselves. For a colleague, it may be saying something like, "That was great how you calmed down the entire cafeteria without raising your voice; I'm going to have to steal that strategy for my classroom." Or, to parents, you might describe their child’s positive behavior by saying, "Jenny is always so respectful in class; I can tell that you must be modeling that for her at home."
  • Use this technique with students - Look for similarities between your childhood experiences and those of your students, and draw those parallels when opportunities arise. For instance, if you have a student who is really into Star Wars, mention the Millennium Falcon model that you are working on at home. I've heard the phrase, "Students don't have to like me, but they do have to respect me." That may be true, but you'll have more influence if they like you and respect you.

6. Consensus - People do what other people are doing. Cialdini cites research that when the sign that is now common in hotel rooms reading, "Please reuse your towels because it helps the environment" was replaced with a sign that read something like, "75% of our guests reuse their towels; please do so as well," then the percentage of guests who reused towels increased by 26%. When the sign said, "75% of the guests who stayed in this room reused their towels," the increase was 33%. So, the consensus effect is amplified by how similar the other people who are exhibiting the desired behavior are to us.

  • Use this technique with parents - Want to get more parents to join the PTA or come to parent conferences? Let them know that other people are doing so. Use phrases like, "Last year, 85% of parents at our school joined the PTA [or attended parent conferences], and I hope you will as well." You can possibly persuade even more parents by making it more personal by saying, "Last year, 85% of my students' parents joined the PTA [or attended parent conferences], and I hope you will as well."
  • Use this technique with students - Are you trying to convince your students to use the test-taking strategies you’ve spent so much class time on? As students are working, walk around the room and say something like, "Almost all of you are using the strategies we’ve been practicing; that's great, and it's going to help you get a better grade." Or, once the papers are graded, say, "About 90% of you used all of your strategies on the test, and you will notice how it helped you to answer more questions correctly." This technique can also work with getting students to line up quietly, turn in homework on time, or do nearly anything else that a majority of the students are already doing.

Looking for more creative classroom management tips? Check out this blog post on How to Motivate and Influence Your Students with Neuromarketing-Based Strategies!