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Emotions & the Art of Persuasion

Understanding and working with emotions is key not only for health and personal wellbeing, but for being maximally effective in the workplace. I am honored to share this book excerpt by author and communications consultant Lee Carter on how to utilize emotions and the Change Triangle tool for emotional health to more effectively communicate and persuade others in the workplace.

An excerpt from the book Persuasion by Lee Hartwell Carter

Mastering your emotions is incredibly valuable for anyone attempting persuasion in a potentially triggering context. I met with psychotherapist and emotions educator, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, author of It’s Not Always Depression, because I had heard about her work with the Change Triangle. And while she teaches the Change Triangle in terms of personal development, her lessons are equally applicable for businesses and organizations who want to master the art of persuasion. Hendel explains the Change Triangle this way:

“On one corner of the triangle are the core emotions—sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, and disgust—the ones hardwired in the middle of our brains and not subject to conscious control. Triggered by the environment, each core emotion sets off a host of physiological reactions that prime us for action.” She emphasizes that all of these emotions are productive, they give us cues to action, and we shouldn’t run from them.

“Then on the next corner are the inhibitory emotions—shame, anxiety, and guilt—which block core emotions and do not serve us biologically. In fact, they keep us from experiencing the emotions we need to in order to serve our purpose.” Where this is applicable to what we are discussing is that your audience must be feeling productive core emotions to be persuadable. It doesn’t have to be joy. Get people afraid, angry, or disgusted and you can reach them. But if your target audience is feeling shame or anxiety or guilt, they won’t be in a persuadable place.

“On the last corner are the defenses, anything we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions: joking, sarcasm, excessive screen time, criticizing, spacing out, procrastination, preoccupation, negative thinking, misguided aggression, overworking, overexercising, over-eating, under-eating, cutting, sex, obsession, addiction, spending too much time on your phone or social media. Hendel continues, “These are the very things we do to avoid engaging in a tough conversation, debate, or even developing a communication strategy.”

The Change Triangle works by helping you return to your core emotions as quickly as possible. When an event or situation causes you or your target audience to be off-balance, you must first determine where you and they are on the Change Triangle: defense, inhibitory, or core. Then move clockwise around the Change Triangle until you get to core emotions, which inherently provide guidance to peace, perspective, or solution.


When you are in touch with your core emotions, it leads to what Hilary calls the four Cs: calm, curious, confident, and compassionate. All of these Cs are exactly what is needed to engage in persuasion. I know if I am not in a place where I am feeling any of these Cs, I am not likely to be persuasive at all.

Talking with people who don’t share your viewpoint, whether personally, politically, or even at work, will bring up a lot of core emotions. But if we can get you to stay in touch with them—instead of what masks them—you can work with them to actively continue to choose empathy.

However, if you go into persuasion from your defensive corner of the triangle—that is, if you’re anxious, shut down, or judgmental, or you’re practicing avoidance (picture motoring your way through the leftover pie on Thanksgiving rather than having a conversation with your brother that you’ve been putting off)—it’s doubtful persuasion will be successful.

You can use the Change Triangle to understand the feelings of the person or people you are trying to persuade. Working to understand their feelings in response to your issue, position, product or company is going to be critical to your Persuasion Plan’s success.


We worked with a client who managed 401(k) plans. They couldn’t understand why every person didn’t invest in their 401(k). To them, it made sense. Every year you don’t save, it’s harder to make up for later in life. Once you start doing it, you won’t even notice a change in your paycheck.

Their arguments were all logical. And that is what they wanted to talk about with their clients. When we asked them what they thought about the people who didn’t contribute every year, their response was “These people are misinformed. How could they possibly want to miss out on the opportunity?”

So then we asked them, “How do you feel about talking to misinformed people?”

They felt anxious about it.

Anxiety is an inhibitory emotion that keeps people from being curious and thus from getting to the right answer. 

Then we talked to participants about how they felt having money come out of every paycheck. They said, “First, retirement is a looong ways away. Mortgage payments, bills, child care, and so forth come every week. So how can we possibly afford to save another dollar?”

Without empathy, what happened?

The financial company sent out a list of facts about why you should invest now. And the participants kept deleting the emails and throwing away their envelopes. No persuasion was happening. But once the financial company understood that today was more important to participants than tomorrow—that’s when they could build a Persuasion Plan that could help employees invest more of their money without sacrificing the things they needed to get done today.


Emotional empathy requires you to be in touch with both your feelings and the feelings of the person or group of people you are engaging with. It will require you to stay curious and open. So here are the three keys to practicing emotional empathy.


First, visualize a specific situation in which you will be engaging with your audience. Then describe how you feel, emotionally and physically; get at every uncomfortable sensation. Are your feelings productive or not? Use the Change Triangle to get at the core emotions. See what behaviors might be signals of avoidance. See what feelings might be barriers to your being curious. Try to work through them until you can get a place of being open-minded.


Both psychologists I interviewed for this book talked about the importance of a clear mission to keep as your anchor. To be successful, you need a specific goal, which is what we worked on in chapter 1. Now memorize your mission and make it your mantra. As you go through the process, continuously ask yourself if your message and behaviors are getting you closer to achieving it.


Before you set pen to paper, before you enter into an actual debate, before you create a marketing plan, you must have a conversation with people who have the opinion that you’re trying to change. If you are trying to sell a new product, talk to the folks you are selling it to. If you are trying to turn around the reputation of your company after a crisis, talk to those who feel they have been wronged. If you are running for office, go out and talk to voters. If you were trying to persuade somebody about gun control, have a conversation with someone who is very supportive of the Second Amendment.

But let me be clear: This conversation is not about trying to change their minds. The objective of this conversation is just to listen. To understand. And to avoid judgment. According to Hilary Jacobs Hendel, judgment is a defense we jump to when we’re uncomfortable. Whatever you think you know and whatever assumptions you’re making, try to suspend them.


To learn more about emotions and the Change Triangle, visit here.



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