"The Relationship Is The Message" Approach

Today we'll explore an article by Robert Cialdini, about using your relationship with someone as a way to request something from them.

How can this tactic enhance your persuasive pull with customers, partners and employees?

Let's find out...


Robert Cialdini first presents research that looked at dating couples' communication patterns. The gist of it is that researchers had people use three different approaches to sway their partner regarding an unresolved issue.

"Some tried...the coercive approach threatening their partners with regrettable consequences if they didn't yield... while others tried a rational approach... arguing that theirs was the more reasonable view."

Both of these approaches didn't work.

On the other hand, the third set of communicators "employed a breathtakingly simple and successful procedure", merely mentioning their existing relationship, either that they'd been together for a while and had shared goals or by simply incorporating pronouns like 'we, 'our' and 'us' into their request.

"The relationship partners exposed to this technique shifted significantly in the requested direction."

Robert Cialdini suggests that "a force as primitive and powerful as human connection...carries implications for business negotiations."

Most of us resonate with this research and have intuitively used the 'relationship is the message' approach, but we probably don't use it as much as we should.


There are blocks to using the relationship-raising approach:

  • First, "the laws of human perception where people are more ready to search for and register separations than connections" (we're more likely to notice differences rather than commonalities).

  • Second... "we are especially unlikely to focus and rely on existing relationships under anxiety-provoking circumstances."

However, Robert Cialdini notes that if we can figure out how to overcome the above two biases, we could "learn to harness the approach appropriately." He cites research conducted over nine years on professional labour and contract negotiators which found that the "most successful bargainers spent 400% more time looking for areas of mutuality (e.g. shared interests) than did their mediocre counterparts."


  • Sales & Partnering: Review every sales message across meetings, nurture emails and proposals to include more instances of what you and the prospective client have in common. Go extreme. Also, be extra-mindful to create a relaxed negotiating environment eschewing aggressive tactics that raise your audiences' anxiety levels.

  • Leadership: If you want your people to align with your vision and goals, create a "shared organisational identity." That is, find a common big idea people can relate to and belong to. For example, Zappos based its identity on "everyone is family", a shared and easy to embrace value that led to a culture of treating co-workers and customers with exceptional care and respect.


Here's what I'll be experimenting with (feel free to join me or not): From the early stage of a business relationship and throughout, I'll be paying close attention to and will track everything I have in common with the other person(s). I will mention these commonalities a lot especially just before I'm about to persuade them to think, feel or do something different. And I will, of course, use, 'we', 'us', and 'our' when persuading.

Which is why I should probably mention that like you, I'm in B2B IT, and this blog is for us to figure out how to level-up our communication skills. I'm learning new things and sharing them with you, because we're in it together.

If you'd like to read the Cialdini article, click here.

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