Staff meetings at work can eat up a large chunk of the day, so employees had better use the time efficiently. Endless flowcharts and graphic displays may not be the most persuasive, so if it's cooperation you're after, new research suggests you should just say "yeah."

Two professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cynthia Rudin, Ph.D., and Been Kim, Ph.D., published their findings recently after discovering that saying "yeah" best engendered agreement between coworkers. Statements such as "Yeah, it was a pleasure working with you" help to cement a positive image in the recipient's mind, as well as contribute to a growing body of evidence that says persuasion can be deconstructed scientifically.

The act of saying "yeah," either preceding a statement or following it, signals to the listener that they already agree with the speaker. Linguistically, it presents the information as factual; there is no dispute, for instance, that "Yeah, this strategy isn't optimal," or, "Yeah, we had better reconsider our options."

Rudin and Kim examined 95 meetings, only a fraction of the estimated 11 million meetings that take place during a typical work day, they noted. They wanted to analyze the effects that different forms of suggestion, both positive and negative, would have on co-workers.

"If we understand general things about meetings," Rudin told Yahoo! Shine, "such as how to make your meeting more effective, it helps us plan ahead and be more productive."

The researchers found a strong positive correlation between the word "yeah" and acceptance of the suggestion.

"Judging from these and similar dialogue segments, our hypothesis is that framing a suggestion as an agreement with a previous suggestion increases its chance of being accepted," Rudin and Kim wrote in their report. "That is, if the idea comes across as if it were in line with previous thoughts by others, the suggestion has a higher chance of being accepted."

The words "give," "menu," "start," and "meeting" round out the researchers' top-five list.

Persuasion has sometimes been called an art — rhetorical flourish that can coerce even the most unyielding observers. But a wealth of evidence suggests persuasion may just be psychology-as-usual, little more than our brain's foolhardiness in believing it's in control.

A number of persuasive techniques have been discovered to be quite potent when used effectively:

  • Door-In-The-Face Technique - This persuasion method stems from the premise that people are more willing to offer a hand if the request has been juxtaposed with a far more extreme request. In other words, an employee is more likely to come in an hour early if her boss has just asked her to come in two hours early, and negotiated the request down from there.
  • Fear-Then-Relief - Here a person exploits someone's fear to get him or her to agree. If a boss threatens to fire one of his employees, then retracts the threat, the employee's relief opens a window for the boss to capitalize persuasively.
  • Foot In The Door - Asking someone for a small favor can prime them to do larger favors. In a series of experiments, researcher Dariusz Dolinski of the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland found that people who were asked to tie a man's shoes were more likely to watch a woman's shopping cart afterwards than people who were not asked to tie the man's shoes.

Techniques such as these rely on a number of psychological effects frequently employed by persuasion, such as priming, conditioning, and appeals to emotion. The employee who uses "yeah" before her suggestions is framing the statement as if it were already fact. The word's positivity draws a mental link in the listener's head that tells him the statement is valid. Done enough, the listener becomes conditioned to associate "yeah" with agreement.

Persuasive techniques can often sound sinister, or deceitful. For instance, it isn't possible to deduce from simply a correlation whether Rudin and Kim observed faster meetings because people said "yeah," or if the meetings naturally ended earlier because people agreed (and expressed the agreement with "yeah").

However, as the researchers noted, despite this ambiguity, businesses have the ability to use the techniques actively and productively. Decisions can be made. Meetings can be trimmed. Time — and money — can be saved.

"If we can automatically detect when a meeting's key decisions are made, and can accurately gauge the meeting wrap-up time, it can give us something immediately valuable, namely an estimated time for the end of the current meeting," the researchers concluded, "which staff can use to plan ahead for the start of the next meeting, or to plan transportation, in a fast-paced corporate culture."

Source: Rudin C, Kim B. Learning About Meetings. Cornell University Library. 2013.