How to win patients and influence people

How do you convince patients (or anyone else, really) to do what you want them to? Here are a few ideas...

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
25th Aug 2018 • 6m read

Dan Lok wasn’t looking for a suit that day. He already had plenty. Strolling into the boutique men's wear store down the road, the businessman was just planning to have a quick browse-around before heading off to his next meeting. As he moved from rack to rack, admiring the perfect seams and luxurious fabrics, a well-dressed sales member stopped him.

“Sir, is there anything I can help you with?”

“No, it’s ok, I was just browsing,” Lok replied, as he turned toward the door, preparing to leave.

"Can I ask you for a small favour before you leave? Try this on.”

The salesman handed Lok a tuxedo and motioned for him to put it on. Since Lok still had some time to kill before his meeting, he got dressed in the tuxedo and looked in the mirror.

“How do you feel?” the man asked, a coy smile cutting across his face as he straightened up the hems.

“Pretty good, actually,” Lok responded, admiring the cut and beginning to wonder if his wardrobe could handle another tux.

“Sir, are you a fan of James Bond?”

Ahh, of course! Who isn’t?”

Well, this tuxedo happens to be the exact design James Bond wears in Casino Royale. You pull it off well,” the salesman gushed.

Lok knew the man was just trying to sell him the tuxedo, of course, but it didn’t matter. He felt like James Bond in that suit, and that made him feel pretty darn good.

Minutes later, he walked out of the store with a $3,000 receipt in one hand and a kick-ass suit in the other!

That, my friends, is the power of selling. Lok didn’t need another suit, but he bought one anyway. Why? Because Dan Lok wasn’t really buying a tuxedo, he was buying an emotion. The tux made him feel good about himself. The sales guy knew that—he knew that to make the sale, it had to be about more than just the tuxedo. He needed to sell a feeling. People may justify decisions with logic, but they buy because of emotion.

But I’m a doctor. I don’t sell tuxedos. Why should this matter to me?

It matters because, as a physician, your job is to sell health. And I’m not just talking about your fees. Becoming a successful physician is predicated on your ability to persuade others. There’s an entire bubble around you that involves the way you influence others to behave in certain ways; the patient who needs to start exercising, the receptionist who doesn’t greet patients the way you want him to, the conference you want to speak at, the new patients you want to attract to your clinic, the medical luminary you want to be mentored by.

People are complicated and there’s no magic bullet for convincing people to do what you want them to do. But there is one great way to start the conversation—work out their why.

Start with why

Simon Sinek’s famous Start with Why talk is one of the most popular videos on YouTube—and with good reason. Sinek argues that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it (if you haven’t already seen it, watch the video). He's adamant that the surest way to persuade anyone to do what you need them to do, is to give them a good reason why.

When it comes to persuasion, the road to least resistance is to map out why someone should do something and then connect that with something emotional. If you have a patient with hypothyroidism who is struggling to stick to their medication regimen, it’s tempting just to say that their symptoms will continue unless they take their meds regularly, and leave it at that. But we both know that’s probably not going to work. Often, all a patient needs to get from preparation to action is a story that highlights the emotional benefits of moving from where they are today, to where they want to be tomorrow. For example, if you know that your patient loves to hike but hasn’t had the energy to do so for several months, a story about another patient who was able to get back to marathon running soon after committing to their medication regimen could be all the motivation they need to stick to their treatment plan.

The process is simple, but requires a certain degree of empathy. When you find yourself in a situation that involves influencing someone else, put yourself in their shoes; find out what matters to them and how you can connect that with certain actions they need to take. What’s the why that will galvanize them into taking action?

The why levers

Working out a patient's why is the first step in helping someone change. But there are billions of whys motivating people to do what they do, so how do you work out which why to focus on? As it turns out, people are typically motivated by two primary factors—they want to feel good, or they want their problems solved (or both!).

Solving problems

This one is obvious. People don’t buy their way into something—they buy their way out of it. If you can identify a problem that someone is facing, figure out how to solve it better than anyone else. Does that conference need someone who can run a unique workshop on ECG interpretation? Do you specialize in a specific area and want to attract more patients to your clinic? Create content and build a social following of people who would benefit from your expertise and eventually want to see you.

Feeling good

The significant objects experiment was started in 2009 by a couple of guys who wanted to objectively measure the power of storytelling. They bought $129 worth of random trinkets, hired writers to craft a story to accompany each piece, and then listed the items on eBay. The result? They took $129 worth of stuff and sold it for over $3,000—that is the power of narrative! Stories drive emotional value. The people who bought the trinkets paid many multiples more than what the products were worth because it felt good. The objects they bought had significance in their minds despite the fact that, objectively, they were just random pieces of junk. How could you apply this understanding to your own life? As practitioners of reason, we sometimes struggle to accept that people don’t always make decisions based on logic. If we want to help a patient change a behavior, we often need to make it personal for them and give them a reason to identify with a certain outcome. Learning the art of storytelling is a powerful tool that you can use to do just that. Let's say you really want Dr XYZ to be your mentor, but you know how busy she is and that she rarely takes on new mentees. Find out why she's motivated to mentor in the first place, then see if you can link that discovery to taking you on as a mentee versus someone else. Perhaps you both came from the same small town, or you wrote a glowing review of one of her books and shared it online. This may not be enough to get a mentor to agree, but making someone feel good about you is always a great start!

Here's what to do

Think about a particular situation you’re facing, right now, which requires you to persuade someone to do something. Perhaps you need more funding for a research project, or you want a local clinic to send you more referrals. As an example, let’s look at Bill; a patient who has just come to see you after his blood test results came back. Bill is showing signs of prediabetes.

  1. What’s the ideal outcome in this situation? Delay diabetes with lifestyle changes.
  2. What needs to be done to get the desired outcome? Cut out sugar for a while. Bill is generally quite active and eats well, but he admits to having a strong sweet tooth.
  3. What could motivate someone to contribute to the desired outcome? Does the patient have an unmet need that could be resolved or an emotional reason for making a change? Bill hikes every weekend, so physical stamina is important to him. He would likely be motivated to avoid anything that might compromise this. A possible side effect of metformin (which he’ll need to start taking if his prediabetes progresses) is asthenia—physical weakness. Knowing this may motivate him to avoid this medication.
  4. What can you say or do to convince someone to contribute to your desired outcome, based on the motivators you identified? Let Bill know that fatigue and weakness are possible side effects of metformin, and that he would need to take this medication if lifestyle changes don’t make a difference to his prediabetes. This might affect his ability to stay active and to cut down on sugar. If he can commit to making the lifestyle changes, he may be able to avoid taking metformin.

This isn’t an exact science, but a good place to start when you need to use your persuasion skills to make something happen.

What techniques / strategies do you use when you need to influence others? Share below!