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The Key to Mastering Influence Is Adaptive Persuasion

You can boost the power of any persuasive strategy by personalizing it.

Key points

  • The key to mastering persuasion is “pre-suasion.”
  • The best way to "pre-suade" someone will depend on their personality.
  • Research suggests which persuasive methods work well for different personality types.

This is the second part of a two-part series in which we explore how the concept of “URU” (Understanding, Respect, and Unity)—or making people feel understood and respected by tailoring your messaging to their unique individuality—is critical for being more persuasive and influential. Part 1 can be found here.

In my last article, I made the point that despite the complexity and diversity of human interactions, there are nevertheless a handful of near-universal principles and one can be summed up in a personal maxim of mine: “Because you are you, remember URU."

URU represents three things that virtually everyone wants: understanding, respect, and unity. But there’s a bit of a paradox embedded within this principle. Just about everyone wants understanding, respect, and unity, this is true. I want to stress the first half of my maxim: “Because you are you…” These first four words stress the individuality and uniqueness of each person, a truth that coexists with the broad universality of the second half, “Remember URU.”

To be clear, there’s no contradiction between the individuality expressed in the first half of the maxim with the universality expressed in the second half. Yes, people in general want URU, but because everyone is unique, the best ways to convey URU to different people will inevitably vary.

Think about it: Let’s say someone is trying to sell you an idea, product, or service. Imagine a car salesman who says, “This car is perfect for you,” but meanwhile the salesman gives you the same generic sales pitch that they give everyone. Does that make you feel like they understand and respect you?

If they respected you, they’d have made the effort to understand you, but since they did not, a sense of unity cannot be established. As a result, even if the car was objectively right for you, you may nevertheless not feel like buying it if no personalized connection to the salesperson was made.

URU and the Power of “Pre-suasion”

Remember Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion? The first six can work fairly well on their own, even without establishing a sense of URU. There’s a reason that Cialdini himself eventually added a seventh: the principle of unity. For Cialdini, unity was the key to what he called “pre-suasion,” or laying the groundwork for persuasion. With time, research, and experience, he found that, yes, you can be effective with just his six previous principles of persuasion, but if you could set the stage for persuasion with pre-suasion, then you could be nearly unstoppable.

The URU principle ties in closely with Cialdini’s idea of pre-suasion, and this is critical to understand for anyone who wants to be more influential and persuasive. People often make the mistake of overly focusing on the content of their messages at the expense of the delivery of those messages.

Imagine a radio with many different stations and frequencies. Your station might be broadcasting all the right content and saying all the right things, but if listeners are not tuned into your frequency, they cannot receive your message. Think of pre-suasion and URU as getting listeners to tune in to your frequency. Once they’re tuned in, then you can go about the business of influencing and persuading them.

This is backed by research. In a 2012 study, researchers crafted five different advertisements for a single product, each personalized to appeal to one of five different profiles correlating to the so-called “Big Fivepersonality traits. What they found was that people responded more positively to the ads calibrated for their specific personality profiles.

In another recent study, the effectiveness of an organ-donor outreach campaign on social media was assessed. Once again, researchers found that different types of posts were most effective with people whose personality profiles matched the tailored content of those posts.

So you can see that the principle of URU applies to not just defusing conflicts and disagreements, as previously discussed, but in directly influencing and persuading people. “Because you are you, remember URU” means that since each person is unique and different, you must establish a sense of understanding, respect, and unity with that person by personalizing your communication with them. Call it adaptive persuasion.

The Principles of Persuasion Meet the Big 5

Now that we’ve established the importance of personalizing your communication depending on who your counterpart is, we address the matter of what kinds of messaging are most effective for which kinds of personalities. This is a complex area but thanks to some research, we can make a few broad generalizations as a starting point using Cialdini’s principles of persuasion vis-a-vis the “Big Five” model of personality traits as our template.

The five traits are Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). Generally speaking, these are the types of persuasive approaches that work best for each personality profile. Some of these insights might be somewhat surprising, but it is simply what the research so far shows.

Openness to experience. Open individuals love creativity, curiosity, imagination, and intellectual stimulation. Researchers have found principles of authority, consistency, social proof, and liking to be persuasive with them. (Remember, also, that the principle of liking contains five sub-principles: attractiveness, similarity, compliments, contact and cooperation, and conditioning and association).

Conscientiousness. Individuals high in conscientiousness value order, reliability, responsibility, and achievement. The principles found to be especially effective with them are authority, consistency, liking, and reciprocity, all of which imply a sense of order, reliability, and responsibility.

Extraversion. People high in extraversion are susceptible to social attention and rewards. They also tend to be more assertive in social situations and therefore more likely to assume positions of social authority. For them, reciprocity, scarcity, and liking work well, not surprisingly.

Agreeableness. People high in agreeability appreciate social harmony and communal goals. Maybe partly for this reason, the greatest number of principles—consistency, authority, reciprocity, social consensus, and liking—all yield good results compared to the other personality traits.

Neuroticism. People high in neuroticism tend to be sensitive to risk, threats, and uncertainty. For these reasons, and again not surprisingly, the principles that are effective with them are scarcity, social proof, and reciprocity.

None of this is to say that the Cialdini principles not listed for any of these traits don’t work for those traits; I suspect they often do, it’s just that this is what the research, so far, has found to be most effective. We’ll learn more with additional research over time, especially if it integrates other models, such as the 10 sources of power or the IRP (interests, rights, power) model.

In the meantime, you can practice putting this research to the test yourself. When interacting with people, use active listening to gauge which of the Big Five traits they display most prominently. Then, when seeking to persuade or negotiate — and remember, we are constantly negotiating — focus on the principles of persuasion found to be most effective for their type.

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