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The Lost Art of Persuasion​

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​When everyone shouts, no one listens. That truism is more relevant today than ever. From politics to social media, the prevailing approach to discourse is to shout down or vilify those who disagree. It seems the art of persuasion has fallen out of favor. But internal auditors cannot allow themselves to be caught up in the fervor of de rigueur intransigence.

In order to effect positive change in organizations, we must make those on the receiving end of our recommendations and reports more open, comfortable, and amenable to what we have to say. Internal auditors must embrace the art of persuasion.

I discuss the art of persuasion in the chapter on Dynamic Communicators in my new book, Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors:

Another important communication skill involves the art of persuasion. Results are not achieved until management implements internal audit's recommendations and they produce a desired outcome. Often, inspiring that reaction in management calls for persuasion. Persuasion doesn't rely on flashy eloquence, an arcane vocabulary, or a dramatic presentation. It's actually fairly simple: phrase your recommendations in ways that incentivize listeners to embrace them, because doing so will make them more successful.

It's not just a matter of phrasing, though. There must be sincerity behind it. You must truly want to help and be honestly interested in making the audited area or the company better. I have found that a good approach is to position your messages as often as possible in terms of risk. For example, let's say the audit reveals an outdated policy on how to evaluate potential contractors — a policy that doesn't take into account recent advances in technology. Internal auditors must convey the risks that could arise if the policy isn't updated. For example, if contractors are not thoroughly evaluated, there is an increased risk that those selected may be unable to meet the contract requirements, causing the organization to suffer inefficiencies or lost resources. The focus on risk eliminates finger wagging and, instead, directs attention to how mitigating the risk will make the area more effective and efficient, potentially driving shareholder value. Good managers will almost always respond to the opportunity to improve their area and their company, and their self-preservation instincts alone will cause their ears to perk up when risk is being discussed.

The techniques of persuasive argument are well known and have been taught for centuries. They impart a bit of salesmanship; a bit of evangelism; even a bit of arm twisting. But persuasion and effective communication are more than just bringing out your inner used-car salesman. Indeed, it requires a disciplined and intellectually honest approach to our work.

In a blog post earlier this year, I wrote about how internal auditors must be intellectually honest in their approach to every engagement and never limit their investigations only to resources that agree with their premises. In that post I listed intellectual honesty's four core concepts, and two of those are particularly germane here: relevant facts and information are never purposefully omitted, even when they contradict one's premise; and facts are presented in an unbiased manner and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another.

If one reads between the lines, those two concepts reflect that negotiation and compromise are also integral parts of successful communication, persuasion, and intellectual honesty. Internal auditors must be willing to step back and consider contrasting or conflicting points of view.

Over my 40 years in the profession, audit clients have disagreed with my findings and recommendations on many occasions — sometimes vehemently. I found it most productive to take the time to step back and genuinely consider their points of view and to compromise when I found value in what they had to say.

In doing research for this post it quickly became obvious that much has been written about persuasion. Two quotes struck me as most relevant. The first, from American economist Mark Skousen, applies to the current state of public discourse — or the decided lack thereof, "The triumph of persuasion over force is the sign of a civilized society."  The second, from Aristotle, applies to how internal auditors should always strive to become trusted advisors, "Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion."

The art of persuasion is the art of effecting change, and effecting positive change is the ultimate goal in our profession.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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