Photo by Gerry Roarty
Human communication and persuasion skills might be the most important skillset in life that I have come across so far. It is all the more valuable because there is no distinction necessary between work and the rest of life. What do I mean by communication and persuasion skills? Under my definition it includes all skills related to improving a person’s ability to communicate and collaborate with, as well as understand and convince other people. This includes for example public speaking, conflict management, copy-writing, reading body language, etc. Communicating effectively is essential for both your professional life as well as your personal relationships. Isn’t it baffling that communication skills are not really taught in school or university?
Why are persuasion skills not taught more?
I can imagine various reasons why this might be. First, it is somewhat assumed that we just pick those skills up on the fly. Put a child in a group of other children and it will figure out how to read body language, solve conflicts and persuade others. Universities nowadays put a lot of emphasis on teamwork. Their solution to teach this skill is to assign countless team papers and presentations and let the students figure it out themselves. Rarely has there been a class on how to work effectively in a team or how to resolve conflict and the like. And yes, this approach does work to an extent. However, the differences in abilities between the various students coming out of this education are immense. If you are not one of the ‘cool kids’, you might have significantly less understanding of persuasion and leadership for example. For such an important life skill it seems negligent to me how we trust in such a non-reliant process of teaching it.
The second reason is society’s general distaste for anything that might be labeled ‘manipulation’. This argument is layered and refers to our love of free will and freedom of choice. We oppose things that meddle with our individual decision abilities. That is also why marketing and especially advertising has such a bad reputation. The premise is that people or companies should not try to convince you of something you don’t want. This argumentation completely ignores, however, the good and even necessary side of persuasion. There is a reason why deep-rooted psychological mechanisms such as social proof are such strong forces. It is useful from an evolutionary and societal perspective that we influence each other. This keeps society together and allows us to work towards common goals. If figures like Gandhi, M. J. King and even Jesus had no communication skills the world would look completely different today. Furthermore, knowing persuasion techniques makes you less likely to fall prey to malicious manipulators yourself. Hence, there is a large protective component to learning these skills as well.
The third reason I could think of arguing against better training of communication and persuasion skills is that they are hard to teach. Teaching how to present in an effective way cannot be taught on paper or by reading a book but only through application and feedback. The same is true for almost all related skills. Hence, there is definitely some merit in this argument especially, since today’s education system is not built for such skills. This can and is already prevented with different teaching formats and or approaches oriented in coaching practices. While constituting a difficulty, this problem is not insurmountable. Smaller classes, more practice and direct feedback would all improve the situation and could be implemented in every school or university today.
The school of human persuasion skills
You see that the common arguments are somewhat weak and there is no real reason to oppose teaching communication and persuasion skills more deliberately. The only challenge is the sheer vastness of this skillset and how to fit it into an already busy curriculum. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic and frequent blogger about persuasion, wrote that there might be a need for an entire human persuasion college major and sketched out the curriculum.
“I’d like to see a college major focusing on the various skills of human persuasion. That’s the sort of skill set that the marketplace will always value and the Internet is unlikely to replace.” — Scott Adams
Skills in such a curriculum would include according to Adams:
- Sales methods
- Psychology of persuasion
- Human interface design
- How to organize information for influence
- Art (specifically design)
- Public speaking
- Appearance (hair, makeup, clothes)
- Managing difficult personalities
- Management theory
- Voice coaching
- How to entertain
- Golf and tennis
I would add a few more.
- Reading body language
- Marketing and branding
While everyone is talking about studying machine learning and programming to be prepared for the future workplace almost nobody is talking about human persuasion skills. However, as I wrote before for skills to be future proof, they need to be robust to socioeconomic and technological changes. I do think this is the case for most of the skills above. This skill set is unlikely to be replaced anytime soon by computers — it might even be impossible to do so. The skills were relevant since humans started organizing in groups and will increase in relevance the more connected we become and collaboration and communication take place.