BEING ABLE TO exert influence is an essential skill in the modem business world. Managers leading a team, colleagues looking for cooperation and employees angling for a promotion all need to know how to influence others.
The context may differ but a common theme is found in all such situations: one person trying to persuade another to accept ideas, support recommendations or embrace initiatives. However, when the time actually arrives for us to influence someone, many of us make the classic beginner's mistake. We start off with comments which express our own point of view and major concerns, and give little thought to those of the other person.
The results are unfortunately predictable - instead of moving towards agreement, we incite argument; we encounter resistance rather than gaining acceptance.
By adopting the right approach you will have a much greater chance of achieving your objectives. The first thing required is empathy, which entails having an in-depth understanding of the person you are trying to influence.
Empathy allows you to see things from an alternative perspective; it is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes without necessarily agreeing with their opinions.
It also makes it possible to understand a different decision-making process and motivations unlike your own. And these, of course, are the key factors behind anyone's willingness or refusal to reach agreement.
With empathy, you can introduce a difficult topic more easily by taking account of their other party's concerns, needs and motivations. In seeing the situation from their point of view, the chances of success increase dramatically.
One model which demonstrates this is the Guiding Values Triangle which is based on the past experience of the person you want to influence, what is imposed on them today, and their relationship with you.
1. Past Experiences
Someone's previous experiences will often determine their future behaviour. For example, imagine you need to influence colleagues to accept the company's new change management process.
If the last such initiative they worked on was unsuccessful, it is fair to assume they will view the latest proposal with apprehension. This does not mean you are doomed to failure, but it does mean you will have to position your message in a way that takes account of what happened before.
A person's history is not limited to experiences with a current employer or in a certain industry. It is also based on family, friends, cultural background and education, all of which help to form attitudes and opinions.
Even if you have worked with someone for a long time, you will only know a proportion of their experiences, so carefully consider what you do know and use it astutely.
2. Current Impositions
In addition to thinking about their past, you also have to understand what is imposed on people today. Therefore, if you are trying to encourage involvement in a two-month project which will inevitably require numerous meetings, conference calls and trips abroad, you need to know what other major commitments people already have. Maybe the year-end report will have to take precedence or annual vacations have already been booked.
Sometimes people say no for reasons we are not aware of, and often these are imposed. They may relate to strict management directives which in turn are tied to key performance indicators, budget restraints or staffing limitations.
Alternatively, the restrictions could be self-imposed, such as the desire for a better work-life balance. You cannot necessarily control or change these impositions, but that does not mean you should not try to understand them.
3. Your Relationship
This part of the Guiding Values Triangle is heavily dependent on you because it involves the strength of your personal relationship. The better that is, the easier it is to get someone to accept and support your ideas.
People are more likely to consider any request favourably, if they know you well and respect your ability. In contrast, no one thinks twice about turning down someone they neither know nor care about.
Therefore, if you want to succeed in influencing, it is important to build a level of rapport and trust first. Have a plan and implement it to develop stronger relationships.
Besides thinking about another person's Guiding Values, you also need to uncover the specific needs and motivations which drive their decision-making process. These can be rational, emotional, political or cultural.
The rational ones include price, timing, quality or service. Usually, they are based on a person's experience plus what has been imposed on them. Emotional motivations derive from experience and the relationship with you. They include ego, greed, fear, trust or dislike. The political and cultural motivations are a combination of relationship factors and impositions, and may involve matters relating to company politics, corporate policy, religion or nationalism.
It is a mistake to think that all decisions are rational. Emotions are responsible for many of the decisions made in the boardroom and elsewhere in the workplace, even if people later explain them as being purely rational. Generally, though, people say no for rational reasons, and say yes for emotional, political or cultural ones. Consequently, the key to influencing is to understand the relative importance of each in your counterpart's decision-making process.
When wishing to influence someone, it helps to start by asking yourself a few questions. Consider whether the other person will have been in a similar situation previously, what may prevent their agreement, and how good your relationship is.
Then think about the needs and motivations they will be subject to and assess which is likely to be strongest. The answers to these questions will help you plan how to go about influencing.
Creating empathy requires application and that you go beyond the obvious. In general, people do not talk openly about their values and motivations. It is your job, though, to uncover as much as you can through subtle probing and listening. This process takes time.
TIPS TO WIN
The principle of reciprocity
Social psychologist Robert Cialdini's second principle of influence notes that we are more willing to comply with requests from people who have done something similar for us first. This is the Principle of Reciprocity - give what you want to receive. Charities rely on reciprocity to raise funds by enclosing a small gift in the envelope to increase the overall response rate. What works for charities can also work in the office. If you help a colleague who is shorthanded with a deadline approaching, you will significantly increase your chances of getting help when you need it. It pays to think about giving before you think about receiving.
Probing, not prying
Probing is a critical skill in the process of influencing. You need to probe to get extra information, to jog the other person's memory, to explore feelings and prompt more in-depth reflection about underlying motivations. In other words, probing is essential for uncovering guiding values. On most occasions, it takes more than one question to get the information you need. Someone who knows how to probe tactfully tries to ask two or three questions on a specific topic to understand the key motivations, attitudes and feelings. The best way to do this is by asking a follow-up question such as “Why do you say that?” or “Can you tell me more?” or “Are there any other reasons?” Just remember that if probing is carried too far it becomes prying, and that no one is inclined to answer questions put in an insensitive or thoughtless manner.
The leading question
By phrasing a question in a certain way, you can suggest the type of answer you want or lead the other person into a particular area. Here is an example: “I'd be interested to know how you allocate resources; how many people are in your team and how you assign responsibilities?” The first part is “open-ended”, the second part leads the respondent towards the area you are most interested in.
Tips on probing
Remember that when you want to uncover guiding values, it is not just what you ask, it is how you ask it. Therefore, use the appropriate body language and tone of voice. Also, plan a few key questions in advance and be mindful of asking them at a suitable time. Have a reason for each question and ask only one at a time. Most importantly, allow the other person to answer without interrupting them. Towards the end of the conversation, summarise and “sweep up” with a question like “Is there anything else I should know?”