Success at work is often less about technical knowledge than it is about mastering the “soft” issues – like interpersonal relationships, personal effectiveness, organisational dynamics, and engaging and winning stakeholders over.

This is crucial for us all.

Almost everyone works in an organisation at some point in their career. Since organisations, at their core, are interconnections of people, our work output is typically a synthesis of our own efforts and inputs from others: our stakeholders.

Unless we’re savvy with our stakeholder relationships, our business outcomes will be stunted – as will our career growth.

But we often mean different things when we talk about “stakeholders”. Sometimes we’re referring to the various colleagues or co-workers we interact with at work, which may include our line managers and immediate team members. Other times we’re referring specifically to people who directly impact and are impacted by the work we do. Either way, sustaining positive relationships with these folks is a vital element of finding our groove and orchestrating brilliant success at work.

Attaining such success almost always involves winning these folks over such that they truly buy into our agenda; or better still, become fans and cheerleaders of our work and our personal brand.

I’ve learned that this rarely ever happens by chance, or just by telling them, commanding them or using the big stick.

Hearts and minds

Simply telling stakeholders what to do is never going to be as effective as touching them in their hearts and minds so they “get it”, i.e., selling the agenda persuasively. This typically requires influencing people through emotional connection, in addition to hard data or facts.

Many of us often fail to appreciate and leverage the power of emotional connections when we’re caught up in the demands of everyday life at work. It doesn’t help that a lot of our conventional education and training tends to focus on the rational aspects of work – based on reasoning or logic. It becomes easy to be fooled into approaching all stakeholder issues from a purely rational or logical stance, using our reason or the thinking part of our brains.

But there’s another part of the human brain, an older part, called the “emotional brain” or limbic system, which plays a more significant role in our decisions and behaviours than many of us realise.

Overwhelming evidence from neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists confirms the irrefutable effect of emotions or feelings in modulating human relationships and exchanges. And, of course, it doesn’t just apply to our families, friends and lovers in our private lives, but also to people we interact with in our work lives.

Indeed, well before the experts of modern times, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle provided wise counsel on the important role of emotions in our interactions.

Our interactions with colleagues and stakeholders at work typically entail some form of persuasion, even when we’re not doing it consciously in our engagements or communication. Persuasion is a fundamental element of interpersonal dynamics, one of the key forces at the heart of human interactions. And Aristotle’s guidance from centuries back remains invaluable: “The fool tells me his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.”

Ethos, logos and pathos

He explained that humans are inherently social animals, and we’re habitually impelled or obligated to persuade other human beings or win them over for all sorts of reasons. He identified three distinct types of proof persuasive people use: ethos, logos and pathos.

Ethos is about your ethical dimensions as a participant in the dance of human interactions – your character, ethics and reputation, for example, are all crucial factors which impact your persuasiveness and ability to hit home with your stakeholders. Aristotle’s assertion that “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others” has stood the test of scientific research.

But it’s a stakeholder’s perception of you as “a good woman or man” that counts, not your perception of yourself.

No matter how virtuous, groovy or sexy you see yourself, if your stakeholder views you negatively or unfavourably, you’ll have an impossible time getting anywhere with them.

Logos relates to the substance of your communication – the actual words or language you use and the logic of your gist. This isn’t just about hard facts, data and statistics; things like analogies, quotations, metaphors and stories are great examples of other ways of getting into your stakeholder’s head persuasively to build concurrence.

Yet it’s the logic of your gist from your stakeholder’s perspective that matters, not the way you see it.

You might think you’re making sense with your gist, but if your argument sounds like gibberish to your stakeholder’s ears, then your chances of getting through to them are on a par with the chances of teaching a coyote to dance salsa.

Pathos pertains to the emotions you stir up in your stakeholder. Persuasion and alignment may come about when your communication strikes a chord and arouses their emotions. Desire, inspiration, fear, anticipation, joy, guilt, and so on, are all emotions everyone feels.

Appealing to your stakeholder’s emotions can be a particularly potent channel to get into their heart and touch them at their core.

Marketing maestros have known this for a long time. That’s why the most memorable and successful media adverts are often those that appeal to our emotive sentiments.

Touch their human spirit

The ability to blend all three modes of persuasion – ethos, logos and pathos – is a critical aptitude for effective communication and savvy stakeholder management. Yet the heartstrings in particular are such powerful levers in the human psyche; emotions resonate with our spirit and tug at us in ways that data, logic or reasoning often don’t, or just can’t.

Emotions like anger, worry and impatience incite us into conflicts of all sorts, with ourselves or with others. Emotions like joy and jubilation rouse us to appreciate the magic of life, a magic that is also nestled within the immeasurable capabilities of the human spirit in us, and in our stakeholders. Emotions like peace imbue us with calm and serenity, giving us the inner silence to fully perceive and comprehend what people are truly communicating to us, especially the stuff between the words, stuff that remains unspoken and often holds more insight than the words themselves, and the clarity to differentiate the wisdom from the “noise” in our perceptions. Emotions like hope and faith inspire us to recognise that, just like us, our stakeholders want to be their best selves and bring their personal magic to their work, and if we make the effort to connect with them better, we can collaboratively create exponential magic. And emotions like love make us show our own best selves and put poetry in our souls, and it’s in amongst the verses and rhymes of the poems that we discover the right words to get through to stakeholders successfully.

Maybe that’s why Aristotle stated that “A speaker who is attempting to move people to thought or action must concern himself with pathos.”

The wise old Greek knew a thing or two about getting in the groove with the magnificent beings that people are – people like you, and your stakeholders.

Always remember: Your interactions and relationships with your stakeholders embody basic human-to-human dynamics. Emotions are central to such dynamics.

Tapping into your stakeholders’ emotions can often be far more compelling than relying solely or excessively on bucketloads of data or logic, or counting on your job title or position, your good looks or your swagger. And if you have established a sound reputation – one of integrity, credibility, empathy, sincerity and trustworthiness – then you’ll find it all the easier to win stakeholders over.

Adapted excerpt from Sweet Stakeholder Love by Sigi Osagie © EPG Solutions Limited 2021

Adapted version published as “3 Persuasive Communication Skills Product Managers Need” on Productboard blog, 24 November 2022