Making influence your superpower: A conversation with Zoe Chance

The Yale behavioral scientist discusses the internal systems that guide our behavior, the power of saying no, and lessons in mastering influence and persuasion.
Zoe Chance and her book “Influence Is Your Superpower”

Zoe Chance

Sure, Superman’s more powerful than a locomotive, but can he get a colleague to rethink a project or a roommate to stop leaving dirty dishes in the sink?

He could if he’s read “Influence Is Your Superpower: The Science of Winning Hearts, Sparking Change, and Making Good Things Happen” (Random House), a new book by Yale behavioral scientist Zoe Chance that offers fun, science-based strategies to help people develop the ability to bring their ideas to life while forging strong relationships with others.

The book draws on research in behavioral economics, neuroscience, and psychology along with Chance’s decade of experience teaching “Mastering Influence and Persuasion,” the most popular course at the Yale School of Management (SOM).

Chance, a senior lecturer in marketing at SOM, recently spoke to Yale News about the internal systems that guide our behavior, the importance of learning to say no, and a four-word question she considers “magical.” The interview has been edited and condensed.

What can people accomplish once they’ve mastered influence?

Zoe Chance: I see learning to be influential as becoming someone who makes people want to say “yes.” It’s the kind of person who walks into a room and says, “I've got an idea,” and the other people look up with happy anticipation, hoping to say “yes” to their proposal before they’ve even heard it.

In more practical terms, I’m teaching people how to get what they want in their work life, at home, and in their creative endeavors, and how to do that while building and strengthening relationships.

Early in the book, you describe “the gator” and “the judge,” two internal systems that guide our behavior. What do they do?

Chance: I make a key distinction between two mental processes that behavioral economists call System 1 and System 2. I refer to them as “the gator” and “the judge” just so they’re easier to remember. They account for 100% of all our decisions and behavior. The gator is fast, unconscious, intuitive, emotional, and habitual. It’s behind about 95% of what we do, but we can’t perceive it because it’s unconscious. The judge is slow, conscious, deliberate, effortful, and seemingly rational and objective.

We experience ourselves as living life in judge mode because it’s conscious, but it’s only responsible for a sliver of our behavior and is vastly influenced by the gator. The judge processes facts and data, which are important, but the judge is a second-guesser. The gator functions as the first responder influencing what information we pay attention to in the first place. We think we’re making objective, rational decisions, but a lot of what we’re doing is rationalizing the preferences of the gator.

When you’re trying to influence somebody, it’s crucial to first focus on that unconscious, emotional, habitual gator system. You need to get the person interested and curious to hear what you have to say before shifting your attention to the judge.

You emphasize the importance of saying no, something many people struggle to do. What advice can you offer to help develop the ability to turn people down?

Chance: I recommend trying a “24 hours of no” challenge. It’s the very first homework assignment in “Mastering Influence and Persuasion.” It’s unusual to start a class about becoming influential by spending an entire day saying no to people, but it’s an eye-opening experience with unforeseen insights and benefits.

If you say no to every single person who asks you for something in the next 24 hours, you will realize that saying no isn’t the end of the world. People won’t hate you. Many probably weren’t expecting you to say yes. Instead, people’s feelings about you are based on how you treat them and not whether you say yes or no to one specific request. As you get more comfortable saying no, you’ll find it empowering. My students keep journals in which they reflect on their influence challenges, and I’ve read hundreds of them over the past decade. What I found is that almost everyone is a people pleaser at heart. Nearly all of us are uncomfortable saying no. But once we start saying no, we recover all this time to do things we truly care about. No matter how old you are, whether you're 16 or 60, you wish that you had learned this sooner because it’s so liberating.

Another transformational outcome is that we get more comfortable with other people saying no to us. Being more comfortable with that possibility allows us to approach people in a more relaxed and comfortable way when making requests. We’re putting less pressure on them. We’re making it easier for them to say no, but because we’re doing that, ironically, they become more inclined to say yes.

One of your strategies centers on what you call the magic question: “What would it take?” What’s magical about those four words?

Chance: The magic question sounds simple, but the processes behind it are complex. Here’s an illustration that Gloria Steinem shared when she visited New Haven a few years ago. At the time, she was focused on anti-sex trafficking work. She talked about visiting a rural village in Zambia and meeting a group of women, whom she asked about three women who had disappeared the previous year due to sex trafficking. She asked the women what it would take for this to never happen again. They suggested an electric fence would solve the problem, explaining that elephants were eating their corn and trampling their crops, leaving them with little to eat or sell at the market. These young women and their families were desperate.

Steinem raised money to build the fence. When she visited the village a few years later, there was a bumper corn crop and no women had been sex trafficked since the fence was built.

The question is magic because it’s respectful. It’s the beginning of a healthy conversation. You can use it in almost any situation with almost any person. It can make them want to give you a roadmap to your desired outcome, and you often get answers that you could have never anticipated because you were unaware of the complexities to a situation. When someone gives you a roadmap and you follow it, they have already committed to your goal. My interpretation of Steinem’s story is not that the fence protected women from sex trafficking, but that the women of the village came together after the fence arrived and made sure that no more young women would get caught up in sex trafficking.

Your course, “Mastering Influence and Persuasion,” is the most popular class at SOM and you share many of your students’ experiences in the book. How have your students influenced you?

Chance: They teach me something in every single class session. One specific way they’ve changed my life has been the gradual, collective influence of a series of teaching assistants from the School for the Environment. They care so deeply about the global climate crisis. At first, I just kind of found it adorable — which is embarrassing because that’s not very respectful. Then I gradually shifted to finding it inspiring and important, but I didn’t yet understand that I could be part of any solution. And finally, over many conversations, I ended up so deeply committed to that same cause that I’m donating half of my profits from this book to organizations working to alleviate the climate crisis. This year I’m supporting, a global network of climate activists. That is 100% due to the influence of my teaching assistants and my students.

I see the book as a celebration of Yale and of my admiration and love for the students who I’ve had the privilege to teach. It features multiple students doing incredible things in my course. It also features research by my brilliant colleagues. I'm excited to have it come out and give us all something to celebrate about each other.

An excerpt from “Influence is Your Superpower” is available on SOM’s website.

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