Sales and persuasion in the 1st century

There are times in both our personal and professional lives when we’re called upon to facilitate settlements… often ones involving disputes or at least differences of opinion. Parents do it, teachers and school administrators do it, managers and small business owners do it. Maybe you’ve done it and maybe you’ve felt like smacking the disagreeing parties on the side of the head. I sure as hell have.

There is, of course, a better way. The Straight Line approach reminds us to see the world as it is, see it better than it is, work toward making it better. In this case you’d need to make it better for everyone involved – a classic win-win-win situation.

Let’s go back in time over 1900 years. A slave named Onesimus has escaped from his master, Philemon, who lives in a city called Colossae, in what is today Turkey. Onesimus travels to Rome where he finds Paul, a man whose teaching holds great sway over a small church in Colossae of which Philemon is a member. The congregation there is referred to as the Colossians and the Paul in this story is the Apostle Paul.

Gathering intelligence

No sale can be made, no resolution can be gained until you have all the facts and you know what you’re working with. These are the facts …

Paul is a Roman citizen and well aware that slavery is the economic foundation of the entire Roman Empire. Roman law allows slave owners to punish slaves for the least little infraction. Running away was sufficient reason for a master to kill his slave. That Onesimus likely stole money from Philemon to fund his journey to Rome just adds fuel to the fire.

Paul’s dilemma

Paul’s faith is rooted in the Torah which forbids the return of escaped slaves. Furthermore, slavery is antithetical to the Christian faith of both Paul and Philemon, yet Philemon is a slave owner. As a further complication, Onesimus, while spending time with Paul, has become a Christian himself.

Paul needs to pull off a hat trick of sorts: comply with Roman law and see to the return of Onesimus to Colossae, comply with God’s law and ensure Onesimus remains a free man and ensure Philemon doesn’t lose face by giving him every opportunity to do the right thing.

Paul has the apostolic authority to force Philemon to do what is right, but instead, he chooses diplomacy and extreme persuasion skills. Paul begins by writing a letter, not as a personal communication to Philemon, but as an addendum to the letter he’d just written to the entire congregation at Colossae. While it’s addressed to Philemon, eventually everyone will have read it.

Right off the bat, Paul employs a variation of what Prof. Robert Cialdini calls social proof. Paul has already taught the congregation that while slavery is tolerated for economic reasons, masters should treat their slaves as well as they treat their own family members. All eyes are now on Philemon. What will he do with his runaway slave who just delivered this letter?

Building rapport

Paul then makes four points to establish rapport. I paraphrase:

1) Philemon, you’re in my prayers and I always give thanks that you’re around because …

2) I keep hearing of your faith and about the love you show your fellow congregants.

3) And I pray that all the good you share spreads to those outside your church.

4) Personally, the love you show others has brought me joy, comfort and encouragement because the whole congregation has benefitted from you, my brother in the faith.

You might call this “buttering up” but there’s nothing insincere in Paul’s words. He’s simply acknowledging the good in Philemon which he will use later on to contrast with the not so good. And when you acknowledge the good that people do, you encourage even greater displays of good. Make sense?

Making a logical case

I have the apostolic authority to force you to free Onesimus, but in light of my previous observations, I’m not going to lord my position over you. Instead I’m going to show you the same love you’ve shown others (what Cialdini calls reciprocity), offered not by a church leader, but by a friend and an old man.

Onesimus is like my own child. But more than that, through our talks he has become like us. Onesimus is now our spiritual brother. Before he was unprofitable to you – a mere slave who ran away and stole from you. Now he’s ready to help you in your higher calling and can be very profitable to you. (BTW, the name Onesimus means profitable!)

Making an emotional case

I’m sending Onesimus back to you, not as a slave, but as a free man. It’s like I’m sending you my own heart. I would have preferred to keep him here so he could assist me. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent and I certainly didn’t want to force your hand. The benevolence you show should be voluntary. Maybe that’s why this whole situation happened in the first place – that Onesimus would be yours forever, not as a man forced into slavery, but as a brother who willingly gives you his heart.

The close

If you consider me your brother in the faith, welcome Onesimus back in the same way you would welcome me. And if he did anything wrong or owes you anything, I’ll make good on it. I promise to repay you in full and I won’t even mention the fact that you owe me your life.

Make me happy, brother. I’m confident you’ll be obedient to my wishes and will do even more than I’ve asked. Oh, and rest assured that one of these days I’m going to pop in for a visit. I’d be honored to be your guest.

The wrap up

Some of you may wonder if Paul was using strongarm tactics on Philemon instead of persuasive skills. What really happened here is that Paul forced Philemon to see the world better than it is. The decision was still Philemon’s to make and based on what we know about him and the situation, the only logical choice for him was to accept Onesimus back as a free man. But just in case Philemon didn’t “get it” Paul assured him he’d be stopping by to make sure he did. Tradition has it that Onesimus went on to become the bishop of the church in Ephesus, another ancient city located in present day Turkey.

Remember that persuasive skills are used to change someone’s mind. Also remember that the end result of any sales situation must be that everyone involved has benefited from the encounter. It’s why I stress the use of ethical persuasion, especially with a system as powerful as the Straight Line Persuasion System.

Thanks for joining me. I wish you the best!