James Borg

James Borg, Persuason, 2nd Edition, New York: Pearson Books, 2008.

5 Stars

James Borg’s acclaimed book on persuasion and the art of listening has enriched me. I must admit I was never into business literature that deals with the various aspects of the business relation.

While I have a working knowledge of developmental psychology, psycholinguistics and team communication, but this book is about something much more specific. It is about the art of making business relations, of engaging another business person in dialogue, mainly with the purpose of selling a product or service.

As business and love are amazingly similar in their principles, it doesn’t surprise that the techniques here presented and elaborated also profit the private sphere and intimate and family relations. The author gives several examples for when companies trained their staff in various aspects of business communication, there was an immediate positive impact also upon the family lives of these employees, namely an improvement of the intra-familiar communication, both in the couple and between parents and children.

The book is systematic, well-researched and amusing to read. It shines by its pragmatic and down-to-earth approach, which is perhaps why it appeals to such a large audience. In addition, the author has a light and witty tone that is very useful when you consider the formalism of psycholinguistics, a science that is rather tedious to study. To be honest, this book is full of real-life examples and anecdotes that make the richness of the texture, and show the author’s large experience in the field of building and maintaining relationships, business and private.

I shall first give an overview over the subjects the book covers and then discuss some specific issues that I document with selected quotes from the book. Every chapter ends with a ‘Coffee Break’ section where the reader is invited to give some basic input, and the Appendix provides the solution of these little recapitulations of the content. Here is a chapter overview:

  • The power of persuasion
  • Being a good listener
  • Attention please
  • Mind your body language
  • Memory magic
  • Make words work for you — the power of psycholinguistics
  • Telephone telepathy
  • Negotiating for mutual benefit
  • ‘Difficult people’ (and their behavior)
  • The personality spectrum

The art of listening is really a center point in this book, perhaps the most important single issue discussed in it. To begin with, the author writes:

Powerful persuasion begins with the ability to hear what others are saying. And listening is about far more than being quiet when somebody else speaks. In the divorce courts and in the workplace, a breakdown is often attributed to poor listening. If it is carried out effectively, it creates and improves personal and business relationships. In every situation in life, effective listening will help you to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings and actions. /13

Since listening is a sign of affirmation, it promotes self-esteem; the opposite usually occurs if there is a breakdown. /15

People who are poor listeners often see listening as a passive — and therefore unproductive — activity. Their ego gets in the way. They feel the need to be talking in order to make any impact with the other person. /15

Listening isn’t merely saying nothing while the other person is talking. It’s deriving meaning from what’s said. And that’s what people find difficult. They think it’s just hearing. /17

Listening […] denotes the process of interpreting and understanding. It means deriving meaning from what has been heard — it is a psychological process. /18

The next central point of the study is memory and how to improve memory. In my research on human genius, I found that people of genius are generally outstanding in the techniques of mnemonics. So let us ask what is the use of a memory in business relations?

I think it serves more than one purpose. It is important to quickly recapitulate and present facts to back one’s claims or point of view with facts. In addition, it is necessary to remember dealings you made previously with a particular person or business. In job interviews, it is often necessary to shine with facts and details from your previous employment. But most of all, as James Borg explains, we need to memorize names and faces, and as a second step, then, to associate those names with the faces. This is essential for contact making, both in the formal and the informal setting, at business meetings and during company outings, parties and excursions when teams meet other teams for the purpose to later collaborate more closely.

The problem is that a lot of people have very average memories and many others have very bad ones. If you can break from this mould, you’re in a very powerful position. In business and personal life, the confidence that comes from a good power of recall is valuable beyond measure. And we all have it within us to improve our memories and therefore our lives. /83

[…] to optimize our memory capability we need to engage both sides of the brain; in other words, the logical (left) and the creative (right) side. /83

You can improve yourself mentally, just as you can improve your physique from working out in the gym. Everyone has the ability. Become your own personal trainer. Conditioning the mind through mental jogging can help develop a more effective memory for names. /89

Our names are the most personal things we possess — they’re unique to us. A name forms a big part in the psychology of the self. Consequently, people are often more responsive to those who use them. /93

The next central issue I have chosen to present and discuss here is how to make words work for you, how to choose the correct wording in each and every possible contextual situation, so as to be most effective with getting your message over to another, or an audience.

James Borg elaborates this part of the book very carefully and it’s really important, and was important for me to read and digest, for I was often sluggish in the choice of words, or thought that I could be just use ‘individualistic’ vocabulary that people had to sort out by themselves. This was a source of constant strife in my life, in both business and private relations. No wonder that some people called me extravagant and even arrogant. Hence, the content of this chapter was especially meaningful to me as I am basically a social-minded person and do not see a great advantage in the mythic image of a mountain sage, when we talk about the social field. The author writes:

The wrong choice of word has precipitated many wars, divorces, fights, arguments and business bust-ups. We make assumptions based on what people are saying or doing and quite often respond before testing the validity of our assumptions./119

Criticism and advice deter people from analysing the reasons of their behaviour. /122

In some cases, […] words may convey an accurate statement (a person could have been late six times for the six meetings you’ve had), but we tend to use them to make a point, and it can lead to the opposite effect./127

You have to use words to communicate. You may as well use the best. /131

Another intriguing topic of the book is how to make effective phone calls, and how to use a sort of telepathy or intuition to correctly second guess how one ‘comes over’ to the other in the various stages of a business conversation, and how the other might be distracted in various ways to ‘receive’ one’s message, which then imperatively requires the change of tactics.

People generally respond better if they’re in a good mood and not under pressure, and when things are going fairly well. Show some perspicacity. Time your requests to your advantage. In other words, call when the other person is able to give their best attention. Good thinking is essential in personal relationships, and it’s crucial in the business world. We should constantly be aware of this. We know it’s true. /158

The next topic that sounded to me like written for me is win-win negotiations. While I always committed to win-win in all business dealings, the reality of my life was atrociously slapping in the face of this principle. In clear text, I was almost always the losing part, and here I learnt why this was so. It had nothing to do with my principle or my intentions, but what the principles are in communicating your point successfully so that you come to at least a 50–50 agreement, not one where the other gets 80 and you get 20.

Well, in my long academic career, this skill and most others discussed in this book were never taught, they were not even thought of as important in my university environment. But I saw their relevance in my work life as a lawyer later on, where I was constantly underpaid despite of the excellence of my work.

Some friends said I was too peace-loving, my own mother and my psychiatrist said I was lacking aggressiveness and other people even reproached me I was masochistic. In truth, I am none of this, but I had no idea how to negotiate, what it means, what it implies.

When I was assertive, I felt I was throwing my weight around, when I was making my point, I felt as if I was having ‘utopian ideas.’ Probably, I came over to others simply as a fool, or in more polite terms, as a ‘hopeless academic.’

It went to a point that still about ten years ago, when I had developed a villa project in Bali, and before I sold it as I felt incompetent to manage it profitably, a potential client told me on the phone: ‘Can you tell me why you are renting out your villas for so cheap?’

James Borg’s advice comes over to me as a joke, or almost, as I was listening too much to my clients, to a point I forgot about my own interest, my own need to make a profit to get a return on my investment, and to appear as credible in the business world. I was considered ‘too cheap’ in all senses of this expression, or ‘too good to be true’ in the eyes of both my competitors and my potential clients. So when the author advises to being empathetic and respectful, I can only say from my personal condition, that’s of course true, but there is something prior to that: it is being respectful of yourself first!

The focus should be on finding a solution to the problem. The problem is not the people you are dealing with. They should be treated with respect, with all due empathy displayed; above all, they should be listened to, regardless of whether you agree with their words./176

Well, we know that the ideal table that promotes a nonconfrontational atmosphere is a round one. It avoids the ‘them’ and ‘us’ of the long rectangular table, with the two sides sitting directly opposite each other. However, if you’re stuck with this kind of table, then it softens the proceedings a little if you don’t site directly opposite the other party./184

If you watch the pros negotiating (at wage tribunals, economic summits, in the boardroom, etc.), you’ll notice how they let the body signal their response to a demand. You’ll see them shaking their head, smiling, flicking an imaginary fleck of fluff off the tie or jacket, or giving occasional outbursts of laughter in disbelief. They’re trying to let the other person know, without actually saying so, that the request is over the top. It’s less offensive using body language./187

Before the author discusses the various personality types, he gives substantial advice on how to deal with what we might call ‘difficult’ people — while we should be well aware that this is a judgment that the person herself will contest in most cases. I would like to caution the reader here as from this point in the book, I felt I was more in contradiction with the author than before, and this for three fundamental reasons.

First, I believe that judging is generally wrong; second, we most of the time have no valid reasons for our judgments, which are more often than not based upon appearances; and third, I am convinced that psychiatric ideas of ‘personality types’ are just another mental drawer that does basic injustice to the human nature that is too complex too be drawn out in lines and circles. I would go as far as saying that the very attempt to ‘categorize’ human beings is a basic error, while I do admit that we all have personal or transpersonal behavior patterns.

So what we are talking about is behavior, not people or personalities, it’s patterns, and those patterns can be changed as they are not carved in stone, and when they are used as judgments about people, we are on the wrong track altogether to ever negotiate peacefully and respectfully with people. We are just all too different to allow us saying we were fitting in certain mental or psychological drawers.

This being said, while some of the ideas the author may be useful, I do generally not think that even if we have all the psychological knowledge needed about different types of persons, in real life we do not apply this knowledge, but act more or less intuitively. The author classifies difficult people into these categories and then briefly discusses each of them, while admitting that ‘most people become less difficult after a discussion in the open.’

[Procrastinator] The important thing is not to show through your conversation and body language that you are irritated with them. You’ll need empathy to get to the root of their indecision and also sympathy for their predicament (having to make a decision). Then you can set about helping them through a process that will unfold at their pace./215

[Explosive] A placatory ‘keep calm’ or words to that effect, usually makes things worse./216

[Self-Important] They’re playing a ‘role’ (an irritating one at that), so — as with your dealings with any kind of difficult person — separate the behavior from the person./219

What I said as a precaution when discussing the previous chapter is so much the more true for the last chapter of the book that deals with Carl Jung’s theory of ‘personality types’. The author’s obvious intention is to make this famed theory useful for the business world, and the process of negotiation, with the result of persuasion.

Psychological research into the study of personality types has centered on the aspect of personality traits. Psychological typing categorizes a number of related personality traits. There is almost universal agreement that we are a product of both nature (biology) and nurture (experience)./230

According to Jung, even though these attitudes are opposite, each person possesses both, and one attitude is dominant over the other. The dominant one is expressed in conscious behavior, while the subordinate one is representative of the person’s unconscious./231

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