How to Use the “Theoretical Identity

KS had been with our company for more than two years. She was talented and ambitious, and had made it clear that she hoped to advance. The problem was that she was also headstrong and impulsive. And this led her to make several rash decisions that were severely problematic – the kind of mistakes that can cost a company money … and kill a career.

As her supervisor, it was my responsibility to make it clear to her that such an error couldn’t happen again. And I was shocked by her reaction. She defiantly announced that she had a terrible migraine and was going home. My mouth hung wide open as I watched her march out the door.

To be honest, I considered terminating her on the spot – but she really was a skilled worker who brought a lot of assets to the company. So I decided to give KS one shot at salvation by pulling out a technique called “Theoretical Identity Assumption” (where you ask the other person to theoretically step into your shoes).

A few days later, I called KS into my office. I told her that I valued her opinion and wanted to get her “take” on a personnel matter. She eagerly listened as I explained the “situation”: I had a talented employee who had made a serious mistake because of having a “knee-jerk” reaction to a problem. Since it would be a shame to terminate someone with so much potential, what did KS think would be the best way to handle it?

As I suspected, KS told me that the company couldn’t afford to keep an employee that made such drastic mistakes on a recurring basis. But since this employee had so much promise, she’d sit the offender down and make it clear that such mistakes would no longer be tolerated. She said she’d give the employee a formal written warning stating that a similar infraction would lead to dismissal. KS assured me that the offending employee would surely “get it” and that this would resolve the matter.

I told KS that I was relieved she felt that way … because she was the employee I was referring to. I told her that I valued her contribution to the company … but couldn’t ignore the costly mistakes she’d been making.

Of course, she agreed. How could she not? I was simply parroting her position … a position she really believed in. That opened the door for us to discuss the specific mistakes she’d made and what she could do to change her ways.

If, instead of using the Theoretical Identity Assumption technique, I had simply reprimanded her, she probably would’ve become defensive. But by asking her to imagine herself in my position, she was able to see my point of view. And when we returned to the “real world,” she had a new perspective. She’d taken a position and she would have felt uncomfortable contradicting it.

The Theoretical Identity Assumption technique is based on a psychological concept called “Cognitive Dissonance.” You can get more info on this topic at the Berkeley Psychology Department website – but this is the gist of it: Contradictions are uncomfortable. And because they’re uncomfortable, they motivate change. If there is a contradiction between a person’s attitude and his actions, he is much more likely to change his mind than his behavior in order to eliminate the discomfort.

That’s what happened with KS. When she found out that she was the subject of our discussion, there was a contradiction between her original attitude (“I’m going home”) and the way she said she’d handle the “situation.” To eliminate the contradiction, she changed her attitude from one of defiance to one of compliance.

And here’s how Jeff W. used that same persuasion technique on his 16-year-old son …

The boy wanted to borrow the car and go out – but he hadn’t yet mowed the lawn, as he’d promised. So Jeff sat his son down and told him that he’d like some input on a business problem. Jeff then described a situation where a vendor hadn’t done what he’d promised, but still wanted to get paid. Naturally, the son advised Jeff to not pay the vendor until he’d done what he said he’d do. And, naturally, the boy then had to agree that the same rule should apply to him.

Theoretical Identity Assumption is just one of the techniques that I cover in detail in my “Master the Art of Persuasion” program. There are many others.

For example, Sonny Fredericks was renowned for his ability to convince people to invest in his business ventures. And he used a close cousin of the Theoretical Identity Assumption technique called “Theoretical Imaging” with great success.

Sonny was speaking with the owner of a motel on the beach who was looking to sell. Sonny wanted to get the owner to agree to allow him to convert the motel to condominiums, but (and here’s the kicker) Sonny wanted to do the conversion without investing a nickel of his own money … and he wanted to keep half the profits.

Sonny asked the motel owner if he would be interested in selling to him if he could get 50 percent more than the guy’s asking price. Imagining all that extra cash, the motel owner naturally said “yes.” Sonny then explained that he would be able to pay him 50 percent more than the asking price if the motel owner could hold onto the property for another year and let Sonny do the conversion.

The rest is history. Sonny successfully converted the motel to condominiums and made approximately $400,000 on his half of the deal (and that was in the 1970s) without investing any of his own money.

When discussing that deal later, Sonny said that he knew he had it made when he saw the gleam in the motel owner’s eyes as he imagined receiving such a high price for his property.

“Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces.” – Henry David Thoreau

[Ed. Note: Larry Fredericks is an entrepreneur with a history of successful business dealings in retail, direct mail, the Internet, and real estate. He is also the creator of the recently released “Master the Art of Persuasion” program.]