The Nature of Persuasion, Pt 3: Rationalise

This is the third in our series of eight articles on the nature of persuasion.

Thus far, we’ve discovered what it is, and what it isn’t, and the role that planning and preparation play in influencing others to do what you want them to do.

In the last installment, we discussed how important it is for you to expand your understanding of the prospect or client.  Your ability to persuade depends on the extent to which you understand the problem, the methods that have been tried to fix it, the limitations of the person you’re speaking to, and the resources available.

Whenever you make assumptions without facts, you’re in danger of failing in your mission to persuade anyone to do anything.



In this article, we’re going to look at what it means to rationalise. Again, we’ll understand this step better if we first exclude what it isn’t. Rationalisation is not about justification.

Sometimes we say that when a person explains (some say “makes excuses”) about why he or she acted in a particular way, then that description is rationalisation.

We even say so. We say that that person is rationalising why she ate the last piece of chocolate cake instead of leaving it for someone else, for example. And in that context, it’s a valid use of the term.

In this case, however, it means something different. It means that you reduce the information you’ve been given into something manageable. We use the term like this in maths.

When you rationalise fractions, it means that you reduce them down to their simplest form. Four-sixths becomes two-thirds; six-eighths becomes three-fourths, etc.



Persuasion implies that some effort will be required to get your point across or to get someone to act on it.

That tells you that you’re dealing with something that is complex and, as you know, complexity means that there’s a lot more information to digest than that which is found with a simple request.

Ever had someone say to you, “I just have a quick question”, and find that the answer could take a week or a lifetime to articulate?

If not, then here’s a “quick question” to give you the idea: “How do you eradicate poverty?”

Five words. That’s all. A quick question, but there are many who have devoted their entire careers trying to find a way to answer it.



Now here’s the thing.

In your mind, you already have a clear idea of what you want to persuade someone of, and a process that you hope will get you there.

The people that you’re talking to, however, may not. It could be that you’re the first person they’ve been able to discuss this issue with; and that being the case, their thoughts are less likely to be organised.

You may have been in this situation yourself. You find yourself thinking out loud. Your thoughts are disjointed; even incoherent. And the person you’re talking with is struggling even more than you trying to figure out what you’re on about.

When you begin to listen to someone about an issue, you immediately start thinking about how all of what you’re hearing is related to everything else. You listen closely to learn more, not only about the person, but also the situation.

Your goal is to get a particular result, but you won’t get it without first organising the information you’re being given.  You may even look for the causes behind the effects.


Dispel misconceptions

Part of the rationalisation process may include dispelling any misconceptions the other person has. Let’s say that you’re a manager who needs to correct the behaviour of someone you supervise.

It could be that the person concerned misunderstood a directive, that what happened was done in good faith and without malicious intent.

In that case, your job is to correct that misunderstanding, and then to rewrite the directive so that it doesn’t happen again.

Speed limits are like this.

Most people believe that a speed limit is the speed at which they’re expected to drive, come what may. They don’t slow down unless their car won’t go that fast. This is why there are so many accidents in fog. People drive 70 or more miles per hour regardless. Few slow down because of the weather conditions.

Another traffic-related problem is merging from a slip road. There are people who will stop at the end and wait for a gap before pulling out.

Part of the problem may be a lack of confidence, but more likely it’s because they don’t understand what it means to merge.


What’s in it for me?

In any persuasion event, you have to consider what’s in it for the other person.

There are few situations that are neutral. That is, it’s rare for you to be able to get your way without conceding something to the other person.

The military is one environment where you might just get away with it most of the time. That’s because the failure to follow an order carries with it such heavy consequences.

In the workplace, however, employees can make life a misery for leaders and managers who will not listen to them. Listening doesn’t mean “in one ear and out the other”. It means “taking action that will have a positive effect on me”.

And often, employees are not to be blamed. Many senior or supervisory people need to be held accountable for what they do.

So part of rationalising what you learn has to include gaining an understanding of how the other person can benefit from doing what you ask.

It’s important for you to be honest, too, not just here, but all the time. If something is outside of your control, then say so. Don’t pretend that it isn’t. This is another way of saying that you need to be willing to admit to what is negotiable, and what isn’t.

It will make your job of persuasion a lot easier if you do.


Trial by Jury

The title of this section is taken from an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s catchy.

It simply is a way of introducing an example of how you can rationalise the information you’re given. From all of the whodunits, or whydunits as many like to call them, there are three things that characterise every crime: Motive, means, and opportunity. The job of the prosecutor, whether in a court or at the denouement, is to establish all of these.

The defense or the accused attempts to create reasonable doubt, that is, an alternative explanation for how the events could have occurred which removes blame from the accused.

Evidence is presented.

Where there is a jury, the evidence is considered and a verdict agreed. In a denouement, those who aren’t guilty, as well as the reading or viewing audience, are the unofficial jury.

Rationalising can be done in exactly the same way.

The criteria will probably be different. You have to establish what it will be; but you should have a mental framework for what you want to say, and what you expect to hear.

With such a framework, you’ll know what to listen for and, perhaps most importantly, what’s missing.

This is easiest in a sales situation.

Prospects or clients explain the unsatisfactory outcome they’re getting. Sometimes they’ll tell you what they think the cause is. Just as in crime fiction, the unknown perpetrator is often described incorrectly, so you will also discover that the supposed culprit is someone or something else.

When you’re disciplining a member of staff, you can be both prosecutor and defender.

It’s important for you to wear the hats of both. As the former, you are seeking to persuade. As the latter, you are answering the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Knowing both will help you to be more effective, not only as a persuader, but also as a protector of the other person.



The goal in this step is to reduce the information you have into manageable pieces, but you have to remember that you won’t be doing this in isolation from everything else.

Your mind will act something like a vegetable sorter. All the pieces are dumped into a funnel at the beginning. Randomly they’re fed down the conveyor. Along the way, robotic arms separate them by size. Your mind separates the ideas into categories.

You’re trying to build up a picture of what is being said. Once you have that picture, you can move on to the next step, but you have to rationalise first. There’s no set time for how long it will take.  All you know is that it will take as long as it does.

In management consulting, it’s not unusual to discover that the most crucial piece of information you need is given to you at the end of the initial meeting period. Sometimes you don’t find out until you’ve had several meetings.

If you’d had it at the beginning, then a lot of time would have been saved.

The prospect or client gave it to you almost as an afterthought. He or she even toyed with the idea of not telling you at all and yet it turned out to be vital to your recommendations.


Effective rationalisation

Effective rationalisation depends on your ability to organise the information you’ve been given - to lump together those things that share similar characteristics or are related in some way and to separate those things which are not.

Once you’ve done that, you’re ready for the next step to persuade someone.


Want to read more about persuasion? Read this book

If you need to improve your skills of persuasion – email me here

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