The Challenge of Being Influential
By Mark Raymond
In nearly all of our coaching work with people in organisations, one of the most prominent issues is having influence. Coachees might not use the word ‘influence’, but what is very relevant for them is being more influential. Needing to have difficult workplace conversations, wanting to have a say on the strategy of a business, wanting to do more of the leading and less of the doing, managing up, or building client relationships are fundamentally about our ability to be influential.
We know that when we have influence, or when we feel listened to, we get more satisfaction from what we’re doing, and find our relationships more rewarding. For the most part we can’t get much done without being influential in some way. It is something that many of us struggle with, and with flatter organisations, and less reliance on authority or power, it is a skilI that is becoming increasingly important. And for those with children, it can be a real challenge (the most influential person in our house isn’t my wife or me but our 4 year old daughter – alas, she can’t write yet!) You may have well developed influencing skills or know of people who do, not in a power sense, but in how they work and get things done with others. What is at the core of being influential? And how can we develop these skills? There is no one answer, no check-list, and yet there are some ideas that can be useful.
Would you listen to someone you didn’t know or respect? The starting point is the relationship, specifically the level of trust you have with the person you want to influence. In our work we tend to think of trust as having four key components:
involvement (which means being tuned in to what is important to others, having their needs and interests at heart) and
In my coaching I often use the metaphor of the trust bucket. Over time, with each positive interaction, the bucket becomes gradually filled with water as each interaction generates more trust in the relationship. Unfortunately, sometimes the bucket can leak, which happens when we see the actions of another person that damages trust in some way. This happened recently with a manager I was working with who was no longer having any influence over one of his key team members. Being aware of these four components of trust helped the manager understand what was important to this team member, and the feedback that he got was that his team member perceived that his focus was all about the work and not about him personally. That is, the component of involvement was relevant as he felt that his manager wasn’t tuned in to what mattered for him personally.
We are influential through the perceptions others have of how we are in conversations (which can include email). It is interesting to watch people with well developed influencing skills in action, and where their focus is. A key aspect of being influential is being present to the other person. This is easier said than done. When we have conversations with others, we often have points we want to get across or things we think others should do. We can get caught up in our own importance and our opinions. It can become all about us, and what we think. If we shift our attention from ourselves to others, we are more likely to be more influential. This is about our ability to be genuinely tuned in and attentive to what matters to the other person, providing them with a safe space to speak into and not be worried about being judged negatively. Strange as it may seem, we don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole body and listen from our moods and emotions. This is much more than a technique or a skill, and more of an orientation, mindset or way of being. You can’t fake it. A client recently reported that at one of her regular catch-ups with her senior leader, she was asked what 4 things were front of mind for her. They then spent the next hour exploring those issues and jointly generating possible solutions.
In addition to being “ present” to others, another key consideration is our “presence”. When others assess us to have “presence” we tend to be able to have greater influence. By presence, we mean the alignment between our language (what we say) and our moods and emotions and body (how we say what we say) that are appropriate for the situation, and that provides others with a level of confidence in us. The impact of the non-verbal aspects of our behaviour (eg.facial expressions, postural configurations and voice tonality) on presence is well documented. Most people tend to think that people have presence or they don’t, but it is a critical skill that be learned and practiced.
So far we’ve discussed the importance of relationship (or what we have done in the “past” to build trust), and being “present” and “presence”. The other important aspect of being influential is oriented towards the future. By being influential we must be impacting on a future action by a person or group of people. For example, we want to give feedback to a staff member so they act in a different way in the future, politicians will want to be influential so we vote for them at an election some time in the future, or sales people will want us to buy their product. This is where the artistry and the courage needed to be influential are required, in the way in which we engage in conversations to generate new possibilities for the future. These conversations require us to put ourselves forward, and to take a risk – sometimes the fear of what could happen stops us from having the impact that we want. But to be influential we must have these conversations, especially in sharing well considered and substantiated opinions, making offers and making requests. Sometimes we just need to say it. The artistry is often about timing and the use of language that is clear, resonates and provides meaning (more on the why and less on the what, rather than the other way around). One of the current criticisms of Australian political parties is that they aren’t articulating a coherent story about the future, that is resonating with people and speaking to what deeply matters to them.
I’d like you to think of someone you want to be able to influence.
How do you think they would assess the level of trust in their relationship with you in the areas of competence, reliability, sincerity and involvement?
What is important to the other person in the area that you want to influence?
How can you address, or take care of what matters to the person?
What sequence of conversations with this person might maximise the chance of your opinions, requests or offers hitting the mark and generating future action?
One final note. This can all seem really serious. Many years ago I was working for an organisation that was going through a tremendous amount of change. The chairman was involved in numerous conversations about serious issues. She was known for being professional and decisive. And often in these conversations, you would hear her and others laughing. She helped to positively transform the organisation. I would love to hear some of your stories. Go forward and influence!