Influencing People Successfully
Much like leadership, influence is a general “catch-all” term to encompass many competencies that individuals deploy in various combinations and to varying degrees, to achieve a particular goal or end (usually through verbal engagement). However, despite the breadth of the competencies drawn upon, the capacity to influence others is a very specific ability and one which can be clearly described with a little effort to do so.
We influence others every day of our lives, whether it is intentional or not. Every conversation we have, every interaction with another person is an influencing opportunity. This could be as simple as asking directions from a stranger in the street or being interviewed for a new job. Sometimes, ‘influence’ is therefore exerted in seconds and in other situations it can be exerted over many hours.
Influencing, like every other skill, can be learned. Many people are intuitively good influencers – they can influence or change the thinking of other people. Changes in thinking can result in a change in behavior, which in turn can change attitudes. Fundamental changes in attitude usually mean that an individual will behave in a new way in the future without needing to be influenced again to do so. Put another way, the person has influenced themselves to accept this permanent change.
Lessons from history demonstrate quite clearly that the ability to influence others is a key to leadership. Observing famous leaders such as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and more recently, Margaret Thatcher or Aung San Suukyi, demonstrates that there are a range of dramatically different and demonstrable influencing styles. But these styles are just as visible in our day to day interactions with ordinary people if we look carefully.
For example, in our day to day lives we are influenced by the media. Every item we purchase is in some ways the result of an influencing strategy. Influencing – or the ability to impact on the thinking and actions of others is a very big part of our lives.
Influencing process factors
If influence is essentially about the way in which people try to ‘shape’ each other’s behavior, the process has to be concerned with two key factors:
A) the inner driving needs or wants of people
B) the inner fears or concerns of people
The first of these factors is ‘aspirational’ or linked to what we want for ourselves and those that we favor in terms of goals and objectives. People will therefore seek to exert positive influence to achieve their goals or easily accept the influence of others where this is consistent with these goals.
The second of these factors is ‘protective’ or linked to what we seek to avoid or minimize for ourselves and those that we favor. People will therefore seek to exert negative influence to avoid an outcome they do not want or to resist the influence of others where it is likely to lead to those unwanted outcomes.
The difference between positive and negative influence
Of course, influence can be seen to be manipulative (as it may involve of force, coercion or authority). However, this is merely negative influence, which usually only acts to make the other person feel slighted or resentful (and ultimately therefore the effort to influence someone to engage in long term change does not work). However, positive influence can be exerted through leadership, inspiration, motivation and management, which helps the behavior change to stick. This is done by understanding and appreciating people’s needs and concerns and by clarifying what people are saying and building relationships. Hence we can say that to be positive:
“Influencing is effective when it is collaboratively achieved and without recourse to direct manipulation or authority.”
This definition simply suggests that two direct outcomes must occur for influence to be positive:
A) The two or more parties need to collaborate in some way or share and understand each other.
B) One party should not seek to gain an ‘upper hand’ or exert influence by manipulation or the use of force in any way.