Build or burn?

Influencing skills

One of the most valuable skills to acquire to progress your career is influencing: the set of personality traits, behaviours and techniques that enlist people to your cause.

There have been several moments in my career when I left a meeting confused as to why I had failed to carry the day.  My arguments had been strong but my influencing skills let me down.  As a result of these disappointments I have closely observed people who are good at influencing.  This is what I have observed.

1)  Keep calm

Passionate intensity and getting visibly angry are to be avoided at all costs.  If you are angry, say ‘I’m angry’ but never do so in a way that loses control.  Expressing an emotion in a calm voice is a powerful rhetorical technique.  Flapping your arms about, raising your voice, and banging the table will not work.  Afterwards, people will recall your emotional state rather than your argument.

2)  Speak clearly

Make sure you speak in complete sentences.  Avoid the outburst that runs out of steam halfway through and leaves you looking around the room in frustration.  If you are unable to form complete thoughts, then don’t speak until you have calmed down.

3)  Use non-verbal language

The best influencers are helped by non-verbal techniques.  When called upon to speak a woman I know used to remove her glasses first.  It wasn’t slow or mannered.  It always gave the message that ‘Now you are going to hear a reasonable summation of the present position’.  Another person I know uses hand movements as he spoke almost as if he was fashioning his argument as a tangible physical presence in front of us, like it was a clay pot.  It sent us the non-verbal message ‘Here is an argument I’ve thought carefully about and which I am really keen to convey to you’.  If you are not careful with your arms on the table, with your doodling, or your body position, you can convey petulance or disdain without realising it.  Don’t make faces or snort.

4)  Logic and reason

In most business situations, hopefully the application of reason and logic, ideally backed by evidence, will win the day.  However, there are times when this approach definitely will not work and you should be alive to these situations.  When someone is employing an emotional argument (eg such and such is bad), then data will never resolve the argument.  You must counter such an argument on its own terms by finding the root cause of why someone feels the way they do.  But before you do, you must show that you have listened.

5)  Listening

Before you can resolve an argument that is rooted in emotion you must first show that you ‘get it’; that you have listened and understood the point.  Moreover you must show that you have listened by acknowledging the point.  A simple ‘I acknowledge that’ might do.  The best influencer I know used to say ‘I think that’s right’ before going on to make a different point.

Take an example I witnessed where a sales team were criticising the customer service of an exporting organisation.  The shipping manager used to say that customer service couldn’t be bad because his order fulfilment data showed they were exceeding target.  Instead he should have said ‘You’re right.  Customers are reporting poor service, and this is despite us achieving our order fulfilment targets’.

6)  Co-option

There are techniques to co-opt people to your side before they have actually done so.  A simple example is to start a sentence with ‘It’s interesting isn’t it…’.  Immediately you’ve co-opted every one of your listeners into agreeing that what you are about to say is interesting.  Another technique is to say ‘Good question’ before answering a question put to you.

The opposite of this approach is to be argumentative and confrontational.  A typical example would be when faced with a problem to apportion blame or seek redress rather than look for a solution; or when asked to discuss one issue raise others.  Avoid saying ‘You’re wrong’.

7)  Build relationships

In Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to win friends and influence people’ he says the best way to win an argument is never to have it in the first place.  This doesn’t mean that conflict should be avoided if it is inevitable but it does mean that, with sufficient investment in relationships, people are often prepared to take things on trust that they wouldn’t with someone they had no relationship with, or disliked.

8)  Candour

I’ve found being candid and truthful can disarm an opponent.    I’ve often used the phrase ‘Putting my cards on the table face up’.  In terms of rhetorical techniques, don’t ask questions that are really a sly way of making a point.  Make your point directly and straightforwardly.  Don’t say ‘I’m sorry but…’ if you are not sorry.  And don’t say ‘With respect…’ if you don’t respect the person.

9)  Process

I once chaired a tender panel that contained a textbook example of how not to influence people.  A person joined the panel who was more senior than everyone else in the room.  His first mistake was to let everyone know he was the most senior person in the room.  He also made it clear he thought he had more experience of this type of supplier than anyone in the room.  His first mistake therefore, before we even got started, was to fail to build any relationships and establish any alliances.  His second mistake was to argue illogically.  He was a finance director and he was advocating the supplier that was the most expensive having earlier impressed upon us the importance that we cut the costs of the service being tendered.  His third mistake was to pick a fight with another member of the panel.  This other member had on several occasions started his sentences with ‘With respect…’  After a while of this, the finance director said ‘If you keep saying ‘With respect’ I’m going to start thinking the opposite’ to which the other panel member replied ‘Perhaps you should’.  At that point, as chair of the panel, I fell back on process.  We had a pre-agreed method of scoring the tender.  No one wanted to change their scores, and so the outcome of the tender was clear.  (After the meeting, the finance director tried to establish that the process was flawed but failed.  Several months later he left the organisation having rubbed everyone up the wrong way).

Some people that love a good argument.  I’m one of them.  But this is not the best way to influence others.


10)  Bargaining

Often an argument cannot be won.  People are resistant to influence, no matter your skills of persuasion.  In such instances, you should never walk away until you have established that there is definitely no common ground.  This is simply a bargaining process: ‘You can’t live with A.  Can you live with B?’

11)  Asking nicely

An under-rated technique for getting someone to do something for you is simply to ask nicely.  This is obviously easier if you are the boss, but otherwise it is relying on people’s goodwill.  When faced with someone who was arguing against my proposal I often say ‘Can I ask you to live with the disappointment?’  Used in a slightly jokey, non-confrontational way, it can be surprisingly effective.

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