Notes and fables on persuasion techniques in interpersonal communication
We all have been targets of marketers and salespeople who use well-established and proven techniques of "foot-in-the-door" and "low-balling," when the persuader starts out with a small request and then ramps it up to a bigger second request if you comply with the first one. In case of low-balling, the second request will be followed by the third, fourth, fifth, etc. into perpetuity until the target gets tired, exhausts resources to give, or figures out the manipulation. This excellent illustration from Curb Your Enthusiasm shows how foot-in-the-door and low-balling can be rolled together into a never-ending string of requests, making a good comedy.
Some of you may have received free massages and make-up sessions ("Just try it out!") at the mall resulting into you buying massage chairs and expensive cosmetics kits. If you ever agreed to buy a timeshare, you also know how it works: "Come to our one-hour information session ('and we'll give you a $50 retail store gift card as a small token for the time and attention you give us'), leave with a timeshare membership that will cost you only a couple of thousand dollars a year. You'll love it!" For many different psychological and social reasons, these techniques of initiating with a smaller request and ending with a bigger request, which is the true goal of the persuader, work quite well in marketing and sales. Many of us even recognise these techniques and still fall for them when we believe that compliance with the ultimate request benefits us in one way or another.
But what if the script is flipped and the persuader starts out not with a small request, but with a big outlandish request that is almost certainly going to be rejected? And in many cases, with a literal slam of the door in the persuader's face? Here are two storied illustrations based on real-life interactions showing how the Door-in-the-Face technique works:
Monique, a homeowner in an affluent Atlanta suburb, was enjoying a rare week day off at home by reading the local newspaper and eating brunch she made for herself. Suddenly she heard the doorbell ring. With her husband at work and both kids at school, she didn’t expect any visitors or disruptors to her relaxed morning. Monique decided to ignore the ring hoping that if it’s one of the door-to-door salespeople flooding their neighborhood with home improvement offers they would think no one is at home and move on.
About 30 seconds later, the doorbell rang again. “Just go away,” Monique thought, “I’m not interested in whatever you are selling.” She didn’t get up and returned to her coffee and newspaper.
When the doorbell rang for the third time and a little bit longer, Monique was annoyed. She decided to check out who it was. She came up to the front door and slowly moved the curtain to see who it was, hoping the person wouldn’t notice her. Big mistake.
An attractive young man was standing right in front of her, facing Monique with a big smile and a friendly wave. He was wearing what seemed to be a company uniform, with a “Better Roofs and Windows” chevron and his name on the badge which read “JZ.” There was no way for Monique to pretend she didn’t see him, and she didn’t want to be rude, so she opened the door dreading the upcoming sales pitch.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said politely. “Would you sell me your house for one dollar?”
“What????” Monique’s jaw dropped. “Of course not!” she said with indignation. As she was closing the door on him, the young man broke into a hearty laughter.
“Of course I know you wouldn’t, ma’am. Who would sell such a beautiful house for just one dollar, right? Crazy.”
“Right,” Monique said, trying to evaluate the situation and see where it was going. She was curious.
“How about a hundred dollars?” the young man said, and immediately continued, without letting her say a word, with a big smile, “I know, it’s ridiculous and I’m pushing it here, but may I interest you in new windows or roof for your house?”
Monique hesitated. Several months before, her house roof was badly damaged by hail and they never got to replacing it. She thought maybe she could at least listen to his pitch.
“Please, ma’am, help the brother out!” he pleaded with her. “Even if you say no, for my bosses it will count that I at least gave you my sales pitch and you listened to it.”
“How would they know?” Monique asked.
“They have us keep the log, and I’ll ask you to sign it when I’m done,” he smiled at her pleadingly again.
“OK, come on in inside. Is your name really JZ?” Monique asked, letting him in.
“Yep, Jaren Zimmerman, actually.”
“No way! My son’s name is Jaren, I thought it was pretty rare.”
“Yeah, that’s why I go by JZ. Easier and funnier that way. Especially on the phone: ‘Hello, my name is Jay-Z’!”
Monique laughed watching him mimicking the phone call, “And Zimmerman?”
“My grandfather was a Jew who married a black woman. They made quite a stir at the time…”
“I’m sure they did,” Monique smiled at the young man. She already knew she liked him.
One month later, Monique had both the new roof and new windows in her house, for a total cost of $20K.
On a warm sunny day in early March 2010, Liza, a professor at a large state university, was walking across her urban campus from one class to another. At a street crossing, while waiting for a green light, she was approached by a pleasant-looking young man with a writing pad.
"Excuse me, ma'am, do you have a minute?" he asked with a bright and friendly smile.
"Only if it's a minute," Liza responded, "I have to teach a class in 15 across the campus."
"Oh, I see. I'll try to be brief. My name is Josh, I'm with American Red Cross," the young man pointed at his badge. "Have you heard of the earthquake in Haiti that happened in January?"
"Of course I have. It made the global news. So much devastation!"
"Exactly! I'm so glad I don't need to explain. We are trying to gather a big team of American volunteers for the Rebuild Haiti effort. You don't need to have any special construction skills, they still need people to clean up the debris and to do low-skills jobs like plastering and painting. Would you be interested in joining the team?"
While Josh was giving his little pitch, Liza had all sorts of thoughts running through her head, "It would be great to do that; I really like working with my hands and have basic carpenting skills; I know they do need a lot of help with reconstruction, but I'm also a teacher with a lot of commitments and a single mother of an 8-year-old..."
"When will the team be going there?" she asked.
"There are multiple teams on rotation, we are sending several teams on a weekly basis, you can join one leaving this Saturday," Josh said.
"Wow, this sounds like a big operation," Liza said.
"It really is, we have received good response on this initiative."
"And how long do the teams have to stay there?"
"Oh, it's very flexible, most people stay for a week or a couple of weeks and then go back home. People have so many commitments these days."
"That's my case. I'm tied up with my teaching till the end of the semester."
"I understand," Josh said with a note of disappointment.
"Do you think this program will continue into the summer? I could probably do a couple of weeks then," Liza suggested.
"Maybe. The devastation there is so big, we might need more teams going in. It depends on so many different factors..."
"I understand," Liza said, suddenly remembering about her class. "Can I help in some other way?"
"I'm glad you asked. As you understand, we are a non-profit that needs funding for these massive types of efforts."
"Of course. I donate to American Red Cross regularly."
"Oh, great! Do you have a membership with us?"
"Yes, I do indeed."
"Wonderful! Would you be able to make a special donation then? I will designate it here on this form as a donation for the Rebuild Haiti program," he started out filling a receipt form on his writing pad.
"I only have $20 on me," Liza said.
"Anything helps, as you know," Josh replied with a smile, handing her the receipt. "Thank you so much for your support!"
When she got home, Liza made sure to check on the status of her membership with American Red Cross and renewed it for the next year.
Other examples of Door-in-the-face technique:
1. "Would you commit to donating a unit of blood every week for three years? No? How about donating just one unit right now, as a part of our annual blood drive?"
2. "Would you help us educate visually impaired elementary school children by reading books to them in their classrooms once a week for a year? No? How about helping us chaperone them to a children's museum tomorrow, just one time?"
3. "Would you join us in our 'Clean Our Oceans' program by coming to the beach and collecting and sorting trash once a week until we are done? No? How about coming just for one time this weekend?" etc., etc.
You can be very creative with this technique, especially when it is used for social and noble causes, such as education, health, or environmental programs. It's simple, formulaic, and almost always works because people feel guilty about rejecting the first implausible request and do not suspect that your true goal was the second request from the very beginning. In our Example 2, Liza probably didn't even give it a second thought that Josh's true goal could have been not to get her on a team of volunteers to rebuild Haiti but just to get a donation out of her. Both are noble goals that are related to each other, so Liza most probably felt good about doing her part and boosting her self-esteem in the process.
A note of caution: Door-n-the-Face can be used effectively on strangers, for noble goals, and with related requests that somehow benefit the persuadee. You have to be careful, however, with using this techniques on people who are close to you, such as friends, family members, or romantic partners. If they start reflecting on or questioning the interaction, you cannot run away from them. Consequently, if they feel they've been manipulated the relationship may become strained. In intimate, close relationship open communication using straightforward requests always works better.
Finally, as a general reminder: Any persuasion effort is successful only when persuadees feel that they have a choice in accepting or rejecting the request, are not used as means to the persuader's ends, are treated ethically with due dignity and respect, and can exercise their free will by saying "no." Otherwise it becomes manipulation and coercion.
About the Creator
Lana V Lynx
Avid reader and occasional writer of satire and dystopia under a pen name of my favorite wild cat.
I like the piece. The examples really gave an insight to what both parties were thinking and trying to accomplish.