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Chapter 5

Receptive Influence:

Inviting Ideas And Stimulating Action

The Purpose of Receptive Influence

Receptive influence invites others to contribute ideas, information, and action. Since most people tend to overuse expressive behaviors when they wish to influence, they also tend to under-use receptive behaviors - behaviors that they may use very effectively and un-selfconsciously as part of everyday conversations with friends and family, coaching or counseling sessions, or intellectual discussions. It is not obvious to everyone that receptive behaviors offer an effective way to influence others directly.

Receptive behaviors, used skillfully, can guide you and others toward an agreement, solution, or choice that satisfies each of you.

You cannot really influence a person to do something that he or she knows to be against his or her best interests, since influence implies choice, unless you are appealing to a negative and vulnerable aspect of that person. (This is discussed in Chapter 16 on the ethics of influence).

Receptive influence indicates respect for the ideas and concerns of the other person and acknowledges his or her authority and accountabilities. At the same time, it creates a channel for the conversation that is flexible, yet goal-directed. This is how it differs from using similar communication behaviors when you do not have a goal in mind, where your intention may simply be to gather information or to assist another person in solving his or her own problem. As an influencer, you are consciously and openly moving toward a goal. You know that the other person has to go there with you willingly, so you make it easier for him or her to move in that direction.

Just as expressive behavior can be used in a way that disempowers others, receptive behaviors can be used in a manipulative way by someone acting as if he or she has no agenda, but behaving in a way that makes it clear that one exists (see Chapter 16). This is an ineffective and dishonest use of receptive behavior. It seldom works very well the first time, and it most certainly will not work a second time. As the saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice, shame on me!"

Phrasing a statement as a question does not mean it will be perceived as receptive behavior. Others will experience questions that present a position or suggest that there is a right answer, as "tell" behaviors. For example, "What does your father always say about that?" is another way of saying, "You'd better do what Dad tells you to do." Questions that include the phrases, "Don't you think . . . " or "Do you agree . . . " are almost always expressive in nature. Leaders and managers are often surprised to learn that employees did not feel involved in a decision, even though they believed themselves to be inquiring and soliciting their ideas. This usually occurs when the subtext is a clear "tell" message. The right, or politically wise, answer was clear. We are very good, as a species, at figuring this out.

Because receptive guidance must be light, rather than heavy, in order to be effective, it is essential that the influencer adopt a neutral, nonjudgmental point of view. If questions and comments promote - even subtly - the influencer's point of view, they will be treated, correctly, as expressive statements. People sometimes misuse receptive influence behaviors in the hope that they will not be caught influencing (see Chapter 16) and that the other person will believe that the result was his or her idea. This virtually never works. Most people are sensitive to having "words put into their mouths" and will not be fooled or coerced into commitment. They may "go along to get along." Many managers mistake their direct reports' political expediency for evidence of their own leadership and influence.

Because of the nature of receptive influence, it is almost never a one-way process. In drawing out and learning about the other person, the influencer will adapt and adjust and develop new ideas - sometimes even changing the influence goal as a result of new information. Often, effective receptive influence behavior provides an opportunity for both participants to accomplish important goals.

The Receptive Behaviors

Receptive behaviors include inquire, listen, attune, and facilitate (Figure 5.1).

1. You can inquire by asking open-ended questions (ones that cannot be answered by "yes" or "no") and drawing the other person out.

2. You can listen by checking understanding and by testing implications of what the other has said.


Figure 5.1.    Receptive Influence Tactics and Behaviors


3. You can attune by identifying with the other person and disclosing information about yourself.

4. You can facilitate by clarifying issues and posing challenging questions.

How Receptive Behaviors Work

Nonverbal Components of Receptive Behaviors

Being receptive means attending to what the other is saying and doing. Nonverbal behaviors, such as making eye contact at key points when you ask a question or check your understanding (but not constantly or invasively), are useful. Gestures that are inclusive and inviting help the flow of conversation. Being sensitive to the rhythm of the other's speech and gestures and joining with it in a gentle way can help bring the two of you into harmony. Relaxed facial muscles allow you to respond in a natural way to the information that flows between you.

Sitting in a relaxed posture and inclining your head toward the other person communicates your interest. Arranging to sit kitty-corner rather than directly across from the other person indicates a conversational rather than a confrontational purpose for the discussion.

Sitting or standing at the same level as the other is helpful, especially if you are seen as having legitimate power or authority over him or her by virtue of position, age, or other aspects of the relationship. For example, you will probably have a better influence conversation with a young child if you are sitting in a low chair.

The emotional and vocal tone that supports receptive behavior is relaxed, curious, and nonjudgmental. If there is an edge to your voice, the other person will probably shut down, assuming that he or she is probably in trouble with you. (If that is the case, it is better to express your point of view first, to put it on the table, or to disengage temporarily until you can use receptive behavior in a more nonjudgmental way.) Be especially careful to leave silence after you speak, to allow the other person time to think about and make a response. Don't step on his or her lines.

You shouldn't leave the other with the impression that you are uninterested or have nothing to say about a topic if that is not the case. You can be alert for nonverbal signs that he or she has completed a thought or gotten to the bottom of an issue so you will know when to interject an expressive comment. Notice, for example, when the other person drops his or her voice at the end of a sentence and adopts a more relaxed posture.

Using Receptive Influence at Work

The most obvious use of receptive influence at work is to obtain information that will help you guide others' thinking about issues. In most organizations, information is an important source of power, and significant data is not always readily available.

You can't get someone's help or shared commitment to a goal without knowing how the other person is thinking about the issue involved. You can't sell someone on an idea or proposal if you don't know his or her decision criteria. You can't negotiate a good and fair agreement with someone if you don't know what he or she wants or needs in relation to the subject at hand. You can't resolve conflicts unless you know how each party is interpreting the situation and what each feels is to be gained or lost.

Receptive behaviors invite others to contribute and grow in confidence and skill. A young executive I once worked with had moved rather quickly from being an outstanding individual contributor to being the head of an important department. He prided himself on having excellent solutions to nearly every problem that his group had to deal with, and he shared them with his staff in the hope that they would learn from him. Yet his people were not developing in the way that he had hoped; he was growing impatient with their lack of imagination. After receiving some rather difficult feedback (as part of a coaching process), he realized that he was not in the habit of asking questions and listening to the ideas that his very talented people tentatively put forward. One day he made a memorable statement: "I am no longer in the business of being a star; now I have to create stars." He knew that "no great idea ever entered the mind through the mouth," and so he decided to use only receptive behaviors at his next staff meeting. To his surprise and delight, his staff was full of ideas - and very excited about having the chance to express them.

One of the mistakes leaders and others often make is to accept the first response, or presenting problem, as the real issue. Thus, we spend a lot of time solving the wrong problems or trying to solve problems that others need to handle. Receptive influence behaviors allow us to learn, in depth, what the real issues are while guiding others along a path toward shared responsibility and commitment.

On teams, receptive influence is essential for getting members' involvement and thus their commitment and energy behind any course of action. Team members can build productive relationships quickly with one another across functional lines by using receptive influence.

In today's competitive environment, one of the keys to organizational success is the ability to learn quickly and communicate that learning to others in the organization. Organizational learning has to happen through the individual use of receptive behaviors.

Using Receptive Influence at Home

In your family or household, receptive influence helps you discover how members are feeling and involves them in decisions that will affect their lives in important ways. It is a means of expressing confidence and respect for others and, in this way, creates an atmosphere of mutual trust. Asking for and listening to others' ideas also invites them to be more open to your ideas. A very common complaint in families is, "He/she never listens to me." This is another way of saying, "I'm not respected around here. My opinions don't count."

Even young children can respond to and reciprocate with good influence behavior.

Children who are treated in this respectful manner are more likely to respond in a mature and productive way, regardless of age. On an outing with my then four-year-old grandson, I asked him to think about his behavior. "Isaac, why did you run away just then?"

He responded, "I forget to manage myself when I have chocolate ice cream." "What do you think you can do about that?" "I shouldn't ask for it." "And what else could you do?" "I could be the boss of me, even if I eat ice cream."

In potentially difficult or emotionally charged situations with adults and older children, it is especially important to lead with receptive behavior (using a nonjudgmental approach and tone of voice) before you find yourself in an attack-and-defend spiral. Doing this requires serious self-management, including knowing when and how to disengage if you begin to feel and act defensive.

Using Receptive Influence in Your Community

Many community issues bring out individuals and groups with a wide range of interests. A major task of leaders in community organizations is finding those interests that are common to all and that might hold promise of agreements or solutions. This can only be done by the judicious use of receptive behaviors.

Even large-scale meetings can be designed so that participants are invited and encouraged to listen to and learn from one another. (See the article on meeting design in Appendix C.)

Perhaps the most important use of receptive behaviors in community settings is for the purpose of understanding widely differing points of view. This is far preferable to the common situation in communities when interest groups break down into ever-smaller cohorts with single-issue themes.

When to Use Receptive Behaviors

In summary, use receptive influence behaviors at work, at home, and in your community under the following circumstances:

A key to successful influence is the ability to balance expressive and receptive behaviors over time in an influence relationship. If I know that you are open to hearing my point of view, I'm much more willing to listen to yours. If I know that you are not just "picking my brain" (a graphic and unpleasant image), but are also willing to tell me what you know and think about the topic, I'll go a little further out on a limb to give you information and opinions.

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