Ten Keys of Influence
Authentic leadership is taking action, not in having, on inﬂuencing to the beneﬁt of the project, not in manipulating it for one's own beneﬁt.
When you try to sell something you need to convince others to support you and your ideas, so you are trying to persuade them. If you do this well they will follow you willingly, not reluctantly; then you will inﬂuence them based on your behavior, on the way you do things. For years I did not understand that magic control salespeople usually have to persuade colleagues or customers to support or buy something. However, during my career as a project manager, I needed to talk to many diﬀerent project stakeholders. The ﬁrst method I used was to establish a dialogue with the people I wanted or needed to inﬂuence.
A persuasive conversation is not a random one. A persuasive conversation has a structure and a purpose. I have observed that every persuasive conversation has the same structure. You can use the same structure whether you are engaged in a two-minute conversation or a two-month conversation about some big initiative. Only you will know that you are using the structure. A persuasive conversation gains more than agreement; it also builds commitment. People will trust you more and want to work with you more. The structure I am talking about follows seven steps, and I have used one of the words of my professional motto "Passion, Persistence, and Patience." In this case I use the word passion as the principle to be used in a persuasive conversation. In this case PASSION is an acronym meaning:
- Situation review
- So, what's in it for me?
- Overcome objections and obstacles
- Next steps
To show you how this structure works, let me give you an example: My project team has been working very hard during the whole week. We have not achieved our deadline, but people feel exhausted and I thought they all needed a break if they want to be productive the next day. I thought it was time to get them out of the oﬃce and go home early to relax. Let's use Figure 1 and PASSION to work through this example.
Figure 1. Persuasive Conversations
- PreparationMake sure the whole team is in the room. Check with a couple of them that they were as tired as they looked. Ask for their attention.
- AlignmentIt has been a hard week, how are you all feeling? Many signals of discontent came by way of reply.
- SituationWe are all tired, we need a break.
SeeIt is important to relax to have more strength the next day and be more productive.
- ImaginationLet's go to the bar to see the tennis match.
- Overcome objections and obstaclesI'll buy the ﬁrst round.
- Next stepsLast person out turns oﬀ the lights and buys the second round.
This persuasive conversation lasted a few minutes. Other conversations are not so easy, and take more time and persistence. That structure works for me. Initially it looks hard to use, but it is not. The more you use the structure, the better you will become. Please practice that when managing your team members in projects.
Based on my experience because I made a lot of mistakes during my professional career I want to share with you some principles that helped me to improve my inﬂuence skills. They are what I call the ten keys of inﬂuence (see Figure 2):
Figure 2. How to Improve Inﬂuencing Skills
- NoddingIn a conversation start the agreement process early. If they say something you disagree with, do not object and start an argument. Ignore the comment. Focus on areas of agreement. You need to funnel the discussion toward your desired outcome. When you achieve an agreement, both parts are happier and have the feeling they are advancing.
- ListeningGreat persuaders have two ears and one mouth, and use them in that proportion. They listen more than they talk. Let people talk themselves into agreement. The more they talk, the more you ﬁnd out about how best to present your idea. Let people talk about their favorite subject themselves. You will have much more time and information to think about your answer or reply.
- Win–winIdentify how you can both win and you will have a much more productive conversation. Craft a story that allows the other person to show how smart they were. People like other people talking about them in a very positive manner, reinforcing their virtues and good skills.
- Emotional engagementIt is easy to disagree with people you dislike, harder to argue against people you like. Use your empathy. If they annoy you, do not show it. Wear the mask of friendship. It needs to be rehearsed because it takes time because it is not natural, but it is possible. Practice, practice, and practice with that.
- Walk in the other people's shoesDo not try to batter people into submission with the brilliance of your idea or logic. You will simply annoy them and give them material to argue about. See how it looks from their side, what's in it for them, why they might object, and what you can do to prevent them objecting.
- Have a plan BHave a best outcome and be prepared to work backward from it. But always have a plan B. When you are sailing against the wind the quickest way forward is not a straight line; it is a zigzag. Learn to be ﬂexible. If something may fail, it will fail for sure. Then you need to have other plan to react quickly enough to that failure.
- PartnershipYou are neither telling someone nor being told what to do. You are working together to discover a good outcome. This is especially important when dealing with important people. If you act as a junior, they will treat you as a junior. Treat them not as a boss, but as a human being and as your partner in developing an idea or action.
- PositivismBe positive both in style and in substance. If you are not positive and enthusiastic about your idea, don't expect anyone else to be positive and enthusiastic for you (Today Is a Good Day!, Alfonso Bucero, Multi-Media Publications, 2010, Canada).
- Traﬃc lightsThink of the conversation structure as a series of red traﬃc lights. Do not proceed to the next stage until the lights turn green. Do not get ahead of yourself; take your time and make sure each step is complete before moving to the next.
Next stepsAlways have some next steps at the end of every conversation, otherwise the trail goes cold. Do not assume the other person is psychic; they will not know what the next steps are, so you have to suggest next steps to them.
Each of these inﬂuencing and persuading principles are explored in more detail in this book. If all you do is to apply some of these principles some of the time, you will ﬁnd that you will become more persuasive and more inﬂuential.
Everyone has his/her own unique style and way of deploying the principles and structure of persuasion; it is not a mechanistic script that you have to read. To start, focus on one step (preparing the conversation) or any one of the ten principles you feel most comfortable with. With practice you can build up more steps and more principles. By way of consolidation, rest assured that even the most accomplished persuaders still mess up and are still learning after decades of experience. The goal is not perfection. The goal is improvement and learning.
Remember the hidden structure of the persuasive conversation has seven stages you need to pass through.
Time spent preparing is rarely wasted. The preparation may take minutes or days as you prepare for a big meeting. Your preparation checklist should cover ﬁve basic questions:
- What do I want to achieve in this meeting?
- How will the other person see this issue?
How should I interact with them? What is their style?
Are any logistics required for the meeting?
How will I start the meeting?
- What are their no-go areas?
- What are their hot buttons? What will turn them on?
- Why would they want to support this idea?
Preparation is crucial to success. You need to spend time thinking about the several scenarios you may ﬁnd in your conversation.
Alignment is where you need to start walking in the other person's shoes. You need to help them answer some questions that they will have in their heads:
- What is this discussion all about?
- Why should I talk to this person about this subject?
- Am I prepared to believe this person?
- Why am I talking now?
This part of the discussion starts "Hi Peter, how are you?" If Peter looks grumpy and harassed, it may be worth seeing what is chewing him up. If it is a bad time to talk, let Peter sort out his problems and set another time to meet.
At ﬁrst meetings, alignment takes time and eﬀort. The other person will be keen to know who you are and, bluntly, if it is worth talking to you. Making a formal pitch about your credentials may be necessary but can backﬁre. They may be unimpressed. Or they may dislike your boasting. Either way, it puts you in the position of a defendant and them in the position of judge and jury. The better way of doing this is to ﬁnd some common background, for example, places you have worked, people you both know, conferences attended. These professional links are a chance to show that you know what you are talking about. Use the opportunity to ﬂatter and soothe an executive ego. Even areas of social overlap, such as pastimes, build some mutual respect.
Once the other side is comfortable that they are talking to the right person at the right time, you can move explicitly to the main subject of discussion. For example: When managing a project for a savings bank in Spain (CGG), when we got to the bank the meeting started with the formal exchange of business cards. We quickly found we had many areas of common background and experience. They had identiﬁed some areas from our advance materials. It was a social chat that conﬁrmed to them that we might know what we were talking about. Once they were relaxed we outlined how we wanted to run the meeting. This was the expectation that we had set, and they were happy to humor us. We made no presentation at all.
If you can both agree on the problem or opportunity, the chances are that the solution will be relatively easy to ﬁnd. In many cases, persuasive conversations go wrong because the two sides have diﬀerent views about what the problem or opportunity is. Invest time to agree explicitly on the problem. Even if you both agree on the problem in broad outline, the chances are that you will have diﬀerent perspectives on it. Explore these perspectives. You do not need to persuade at this moment; you need to listen.
Remember to focus on their issue, opportunity, or problem, not on yours. Understand how they see the world before you try changing their view of the world. It is better to ask smart questions than to make smart comments. Smart questions are ones that get rich answers. Dumb questions get yes or no answers. Even if you get lucky with a yes, you have not learned anything about why they said yes. And if they say no, you hit a dead end. Smart/dumb comments are just that. They may be very smart and based on deep insight and knowledge, but they are also dumb because they invite a pointless argument. For example, see Table 1.
Table 1. Situation Review
If the conversation later on goes wrong, come back to this point: Reaﬃrm what it is that you are trying to accomplish together. The situation review is the logical choke point of the conversation. If in doubt, always come back to this point to clarify and conﬁrm
So, What's in It for Me?
Now a huge bear trap opens up. It is tempting to leap to the solution and discuss how it works. If you do this, you will be speeding through several sets of red traﬃc lights. You may get lucky and survive, but you may well crash and burn. Take it easy. You are slowly building commitment; keep them nodding, keep them on your side.
Before they agree with your idea, they will have two questions rattling in the back of their minds:
- What are the beneﬁts of your idea to me personally and to my organization?
- What are the risks to me personally and to my organization?
Your ﬁrst talk is to explore the beneﬁts of your idea. Leave the risks and problems until later. People buy solutions, not problems. If you focus on the problems too early, you will depress and discourage everyone and they will give up. They need the motivation of knowing what's in it for them and their organization.
Beneﬁts are rational, emotional, and political. We normally focus on the rational beneﬁts only, but humans are not computers. We have emotions. As social animals we also have politics. Be aware of all beneﬁts and risks of your idea.
Rational beneﬁts are obvious. Some are ﬁnancials, others are not, but they have ﬁnancial implications. Establish the ﬁnancial impact of all of these beneﬁts. Size the prize. If you are able to dangle a carrot worth millions in front of someone, then most people will start to show interest. The art is not to tell them this is worth millions. Discuss it with them, produce the estimate together. If it is their estimate, they will believe it.
Political beneﬁts and risks come down to a simple question: How will this aﬀect me in my organization? No one wants to be the village idiot who backed a dumb idea or made a bad decision or negotiated poorly. You need to approach these issues crabwise: from the side. Diving overtly into the politics of your organization and your partner is unlikely to be productive. Instead, you can ask smart questions to reveal what the political landscape looks like:
- Who else needs to buy into this idea?
- How will they see this idea?
- What will they like about it?
- What risks will they see?
- How would you advise that we handle this issue when we see them?
When you frame the question this way, you give the other side the chance to air their personal fears under the guise of pretending that they are fears their colleagues have. Live with the deceit: It is a useful way of ﬁnding out what they really think.
Finally, you need to deal with the emotional aspects of your idea, which again come down to a simple question: What's in it for me (WIFM)? Once you understand what is in it for each person you are dealing with, you are on the high road to success. Or at least you can understand the real obstacles that lie on the road ahead.
The answer may be positive or negative. The problem with emotional objections is that no one talks about them. They disguise them with rational concerns such as: “That is too risky, it will cost too much, and health and safety will not allow it.” And the more you argue about these rational objections, the more you ignore their real objection. Things get ugly fast.
Most WIFM objections come down to perceived risk in terms of success, workload, reputation, and so on. The key is to understand that risk is not absolute; it is relative. The default position of most people when faced with a risky idea is to kill it: doing nothing is less risky than doing something. So you have to change the balance of risk:
- Provide reassurance that the risks of your idea are modest and manageable.
- Show that the risks of doing nothing are real. Create the burning platform, ﬁnd the bogeyman that will eat them up if they stand still.
- All of this takes time. Do not rush. Ask smart questions that lead them to the answer you want them to discover.
By this point, you are 90% of the way to success. Your client or colleague is ready to say yes. And yet you still have not actually proposed your idea. But your client and colleague now actively want to hear your solution: They agree on the problem, they see that there are big beneﬁts in solving it, and any risks or objections are known and manageable. So all they want to know is how. At last, you are ready to tell them and they are ready to agree.
There are three ways of outlining your proposed idea.
The simplest way is to tell them, in one sentence: "Let's start with an eight-week assessment with a small team, which will then lead to a focused eﬀort over nine months to deliver the results you want."
You then move promptly to Stage 6 where you preempt and resolve any outstanding concerns they may have.
Oﬀer them a choice, so that they feel ownership over the course of action that they pick. Naturally, you will have a preferred solution and so you will want to make sure they pick the right one.
If you oﬀer a choice, you change the terms of debate. You are no longer saying my way or no way. You set up a partnership discussion in which you are ﬁnding the best solution together. The simplest version of this is the three-choice trick:
- Choice AVery big and exciting, but you know it is going to be too much and too risky.
- Choice BThis is the choice you prefer.
- Choice CLow risk, low eﬀort but really does not get anyone anywhere.
Let the other person tell you in no uncertain terms why A and C are useless choices. Let them conﬁrm to themselves their wisdom, business judgment, and superiority. You can then profess your great thanks to them for guiding you to choice B, which you wanted all along.
Ask your client or colleague to design the solution for you. In practice, you have to take them through a process of discovery so that they reveal to themselves the solution you have always wanted. This is more elaborate than the ﬁrst two methods, but it is also more powerful. By letting someone come up with their own solution, you guarantee that they are genuinely committed to it. They can show oﬀ to others about how smart they were in ﬁguring out the solution. Let them brag.
Overcome Objections and Obstacles: The Art of Persuasion
The best way to deal with problems and objections is to preempt them. If you have done your listening well in the early stages, you will know what the objections are likely to be, and you will be able to defuse them. For instance, if you know the budget will be an objection, you might mention in advance that the ﬁnance department has already looked at your idea. Even if they have not approved the idea, you can say that you are working with them to solve the problem.
Inevitably, there will be some objections. This is the "yes, but …" part of the conversation. People start to say things like "Yes, but have you thought of …" or "I agree, but how about …" They are raising their anxieties and concerns. There are many ways of dealing with these concerns. Probably the worst way is to argue your case: the smarter you are, the more you will drive the other person into a corner. Argument simply generates more argument.
It is natural for us to react defensively to these objections: people are saying that they do not like our baby. The problem with a defensive reaction is that it simply provokes more argument. Soon enough both sides will be engaged in trench warfare to prove that they are right and the other side is wrong. The rational debate gets lost in the emotional need to be seen to be right.
So how can we deﬁne objections without ﬁghting them? You use persuasion judo: use the force of their own argument to ﬂatten their argument. There are three steps to persuasion:
- Agree with the objectionThis avoids the win–lose debate that results from a defensive reaction. The two of you are now in agreement and you face a common challenge. Here is the sort of language you can use:
- "I agree. That has been worrying me."
- "You're right. Other people have been raising the same issue."
- Outline a potential solution in a way that does not put you on the line for defending the ideaFor instance: "When I talked this through with other people, they came up with a range of solutions. One I liked in particular was …" You have just depersonalized the disagreement. If the solution is no good, then the other person is no longer arguing with you: they are arguing with an absent third party who suggested the idea. You are both on safe ground.
- Ask for their adviceAsk if they have a better way of solving the challenge than the one you outlined. Again, the language can be simple: "Of course, that was just one idea. Would that work or do you have an even better way of dealing with it?"
So now you are getting your client or colleague to solve their own problem for you.
Never assume that you have agreement. Most managers are not great at telepathy. They will not know exactly what you want. Many people fall at this ﬁnal hurdle. For instance, I was recently called in to see a government minister. I prepared thoroughly and it all went well. But I had been so focused on getting through the meeting that I had forgotten the most important thing of all. Government ministers have other things on their mind and do not have time to waste trying to work out what you are thinking or hoping for. You have to ask and be clear about what you want. Do not turn your golden opportunity into fool's gold. Conﬁrm your agreement. What you think has happened may not be the same as what the other person thinks has happened. There are four main ways of closing the conversation. In the ﬁrst three cases you get positive conﬁrmation that you both understand what you have agreed. Once you have agreement, follow up. The longer you leave it, the more the agreement will go cold and second thoughts will start coming up. If possible, make the agreement public; once committed in public, people ﬁnd it hard to backtrack. Send an e-mail thanking them for their contribution and conﬁrming the next steps. Ideally, give both parties a next step. You can show professionalism by following up. By asking for a next step from the other person, you reinforce your mutual agreement and their commitment.
The structure of your persuasive conversation is not just a rational framework. It is also an emotional framework (See Table 2) in which you take someone on a journey from indiﬀerence or hostility to agreement and commitment. The traﬃc lights apply to each stage of the emotional journey as well as to the logic of your conversation. Here is how the structure of logic and emotion ﬂow together. For the sake of simplicity I refer to the person you are persuading as a client, although they may be a colleague, supplier, regulator, vendor, partner, or anyone else.
Table 2. Emotional Flow
The easiest way to see if the emotional traﬃc lights are green is to watch the body language. It is normally pretty obvious. If someone is leaning forward, smiling, talking warmly and positively, then you have green lights. If they are sitting back, arms folded, looking over your shoulder, looking at their smartphone, ﬁdgeting, and giving short and tetchy answers to you, then it does not take a genius to work out that the emotional traﬃc lights are ﬂashing bright red. When this happens, do not plow on. Go back to Stages 2 and 3, get some alignment and make sure you have understood what their perspective is.
By keeping this structure in your mind you can pace and direct the conversation as you see ﬁt. You are not working to a script; you are not a pushy salesperson. You are being yourself. But you have a structure that gives direction and purpose to your conversation. Your conversation becomes persuasive and productive.
Persuasive conversations rarely go wrong because the persuader does not have the right skills. They go wrong because the basics go wrong. Here, from hard-won experience, are some of the classics:
- Persuading the wrong personDo a brilliant job, gain agreement, and ﬁnd the person you are talking to is not the real decision maker. The solution is to do your homework.
- Leaving without next stepsThis can happen even after a brilliant meeting where everything has gone well, but you forget to state exactly what happens next. It is then very awkward to go back a few days later and try to re-create the enthusiasm that existed before. And if things have not gone as planned, you always need a plan B, which should at least involve a follow-up conversation. Solution: know the outcome you want, and ask for it.
- Falling in love with your own ideaYou talk too much and talk over the other person who will not love your baby as much as you do. In fact, they may just see a noisy mess and will object to your baby. Listening is better than talking. Solution: ask smart questions, don't make smart comments. Failing that, buy duct tape and put it over your mouth.
- Becoming defensiveWhen people object to your idea, it is easy to start arguing back. Then you just have an argument. It is better to win a friend than to win an argument. Solution: agree with the objection. Let them talk about their concerns. Ask them for advice on how they would solve their concern. Often the will solve their own problem.
- Not following upWhen you have an agreement, you need to reinforce it and conﬁrm it. Otherwise, nothing will happen. Solution: send an e-mail immediately after the meeting thanking them for their great help and summarizing the main conclusions and next steps.
- Having only one planThis is ﬁne when things go well. But we have to deal with human nature. The unexpected happens. You need to prepare for all eventualities and to be ﬂexible. Solution: have a plan B, have an alternative.
- Hiding behind PowerPointThat tool is a disaster for persuaders. It makes you talk, not listen. It gives you no ﬂexibility. It puts the other person in the role of judge and jury that is a role they will enjoy more than you, because you are the defendant they are judging.
The invisible structure behind the persuasive conversation has seven steps. Those steps match with part of my motto: Passion, persistence, and patience.
PASSION is the ﬁrst one you need to apply:
- Situation review
- So, what's in it for me?
- Overcome objections and obstacles
- Next steps
Apply this structure consistently and your discussions become cooperative, negative outcomes become positive, and passive agreements become active support.
The persuasive conversation, like most inﬂuencing skills, is most eﬀective when it is invisible. People do not need to feel that they are being persuaded or inﬂuenced. Gently guide them in the right direction. Let them discover the right answer. Done well, they will think it is their own idea. They will commit willingly to the idea, whereas active persuading often leads to no more than passive and grudging agreement. Inﬂuencers go beyond that to build active and lasting support.
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