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Book review: Persuasion

This review fist ran in the Dec. 5 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds

By Arlene Dickinson

Collins ($32.99)

A neighbour is up against the same challenge our family faced a few years ago. It was a challenge that put our powers of persuasion to the test.

We live in a neighbourhood where a bylaw blocks the conversion of family homes into monster houses overrun with students.

But the bylaw, with its variance application form, $1,040 fee and committee hearing, can easily unnerve, discourage and dissuade families who want to give their postwar bungalows a much needed extreme home makeover.

We loved the neighbourhood so we opted to go through the process. A neighbour on another street opposed our plans to add a second storey and got a few other folks to write letters of opposition.  

We read those letters for the first time while waiting to go into our committee hearing. Our neighbour was waiting too and brought along hired help to shoot down our plans. During our hearing, the committee asked if we’d reconsider and scale back our renovations. We were told to come back for a second meeting where a decision would be made after committee members had paid a visit to our home and talked amongst themselves.

And that’s when I decided to get persuasive.  I went door to door, getting every homeowner on our street to sign a petition supporting our proposed six figure investment in their neighbourhood. I pulled together a presentation with pictures of all the two-storey homes on surrounding streets. In my cover letter to the committee, I said our family would be on the move if the renovation wasn’t approved. We’d take up residence and pay taxes in Burlington. And I’d make a point of handing the keys over to one of the out-of-town landlords who were forever calling and writing with offers to buy our house sight unseen.

We got the green light to renovate. We spent a small fortune and put down roots. A few other neighbours with growing families have done the same.

As I discovered, there’s nothing that sharpens the power of persuasion more than a challenge to the hopes and dreams we hold for our families.

That same challenge worked wonders for author, marketing expert and Dragon’s Den co-star Arlene Dickinson.

Dickinson was 16 when she graduated from high school. She got a job instead of going on to college or university. At 19, she got married. At 27, she was raising four kids and working a string of jobs in a small town while her husband went to university. When she was 30, Dickinson had an affair that ended her marriage, got her excommunicated from the Mormon church and separated her from her children.

The family court judge told Dickinson that if she wanted full custody of her children, she’d need to get a place to live and prove she could financially support her kids.

“Shock, anguish, grief, remorse – those words don’t even begin to cover how I felt,” says Dickinson. “I remember weeping on my dad’s couch for days.”

Fortunately her father was a great persuader. “He helped me understand that this was the pivotal moment in my life, the moment that would determine what kind of future my kids had and what role I would play in it. If I gave up on myself, I was essentially giving up my kids for good.”

A stint selling ads for a Calgary TV station led to an offer to join Venture, a start-up marketing firm. Ten years after her father persuaded her to get off the couch, she became CEO. And 13 years after that, she was starring on the Dragon’s Den.

Dickinson shares her story to reinforce the importance of being authentic.  “You don’t need to tell others your life story to establish authenticity. But you do need to be honest with yourself, take responsibility for your choices and own your weaknesses as well as your strengths. When people feel they’re dealing with a real person who isn’t hiding behind excuses or a mask, who’s presenting a face to the world that’s genuine, they know they’re dealing with someone they can trust.”

And that trust is key to principled persuasion. Along with being true to yourself, you must be truthful with others. “Long term, honesty isn’t just the best policy. It’s also the most persuasive one.”

Dickinson says persuasion is a great test of character. What we’re willing to do and say and how far we’ll go to convince others speaks to our strengths and the reliability of our moral compass.

Dickinson also gets into the mechanics of effective persuasion.  Before you make your pitch for a new job, venture capital or a second storey addition for your home, you need to prepare. The will to prepare trumps the will to win when it comes to persuasion.

“At least half of what makes you persuasive occurs before you ever even open your mouth. Before you utter a word, you need to prepare, you need to rein in your ego, and you need to figure out what’s driving the other party. What’s motivating them? What do they want? How do they view the situation?”

Dickinson offers a wealth of practical advice and hard-earned wisdom on how to change minds. “Everyone has potential and is capable of realizing it. Becoming a good persuader is a great start. That’s a skill that can take you far.”

Dickinson is proof of that.

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