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Chapter 10

Focus On The Context

The Individual

Influence Happens in the Other Person

Annoying, but there it is. No matter how well you have convinced yourself that your idea is the best thing since postable notes, if the other person doesn't buy it, you haven't influenced. It would be a perfect (albeit boring) world if everyone thought like you do; since they don't, you have to know as much as possible about the person you need to influence.

I once had a client who was the senior vice president of engineering in a large public utility. He was working on being more effective with the executive committee. I asked him to tell me how he usually approached them when he wanted funding for a project. He explained how carefully he put together the proposals with an emphasis on important structural engineering details as well as costs. Unfortunately for him, nearly all the members of the executive committee were attorneys or accountants and were primarily interested in safety issues and what their exposure might be to lawsuits. The details of the design were not reassuring to them. They were not impressed with, and thus not influenced by, his proposals because their questions and concerns were not addressed. It was a big "aha" for him to realize that he should find out what their decision criteria were and let them be his guide, rather than share data that was convincing to him.

Understanding Values, Needs, and Aspirations

Three important things to understand about the person you wish to influence (and about yourself) in relation to your influence goal are

The first question concerns values. Values usually come from one's culture, family, or profession. They are beliefs about what is right, true, and good; we use them as the basis for important decisions. An example would be, "I believe that everyone should be consulted on issues that will affect them directly." Needs have to do with current vested interests - what she or he has to gain or lose related to the issue at hand. An example is, "I need to have input on the reorganization of my project team." The third question has to do with longer-term aspirations, hopes, and dreams, for example, "I want to be involved in this decision in order to gain valuable leadership experience."

An important influence issue may involve any or all of these. Some issues are more value-based ("What should be included in our code of conduct?"). Some stimulate questions of vested interests ("Which project will we fund, and who will lead it?"). Some are related to important aspirations ("Where should I go to school?").

Suppose, for example, that you want to persuade your neighbor to help you initiate a community garden project. He or she may value the idea of neighborhood cooperation, or on the other hand, be a strong proponent of individual family privacy. Perhaps your neighbor has a strong need for a say in neighborhood esthetic decisions - or perhaps he or she has a demanding job and needs weekends and evenings to be available to his or her family. Does he or she hope to be a community leader or aspire to move to a more upscale neighborhood? Understanding the values, needs, and aspirations of your neighbor can help you choose a realistic, wise approach to influencing him or her on this issue. Understanding values, needs, and aspirations can, in some cases, lead you to modify your goal or decide to seek support elsewhere.

To learn a great deal about another person's values, needs, and aspirations, you only need to look and listen. Look at what is on display in his or her office or private space. Listen to the words, phrases, and themes that are emphasized over and over again in casual conversation and in meetings. Pay attention to what the person responds to favorably and his or her "hot buttons." You need not be secretive about it - we all like to discuss these things and usually prefer that the people we live and work with closely understand and respect our preferences.

It is essential to know that you cannot change anyone's values, needs, or aspirations through direct influence. You can expose others to alternative options and ideas, but you will have to stay out of their way while they deal with any internal changes they might choose to make. (This is particularly difficult when we are influencing family members or friends.) You can, however, keep their values, needs, and aspirations in mind as you influence them to take certain actions. If you can find an honest way to frame what you want them to do that is consonant with their values, needs, or aspirations, most of your work will be done for you. And you will have treated the person with respect. For example, a school counselor I once knew wanted to influence her principal not to suspend a boy with whom she was working. The child had gradually improved his behavior during the year as a result of a lot of hard work on her part, as well as his. She believed that, with a sustained effort, he would turn around, and that a suspension would interrupt the progress that was being made, especially since attendance was an issue for him. That morning, however, he had disrupted a class and the principal wanted to teach him a lesson. The principal was an ex-military officer who believed in a strictly enforced disciplinary code. The counselor knew that approaching him with a plea for leniency or anything he might read as excusing the boy's behavior would be useless. Instead, she stated, "I know how important it is to you that children be held responsible for their actions. I believe that we should not give him the 'out' of suspending him, but rather insist that he deal directly with the teacher and make an agreement with her to do something that will make up for the problems he caused." This was a realistic and honest alternative way of assessing the situation and presenting the case. It made good sense from the point of view of the principal. He accepted the suggestion.

If you understand these fundamentals, you can think your way into the other's mind and predict how he or she might respond to a specific influence issue. This will help you to prepare. For example, you can show him how the action you are hoping to stimulate will fit within his values. You can demonstrate to her how doing this will meet her needs. You can show how your aspirations are aligned around this issue. This is often called "reframing," and it is a powerful technique (see Chapter 14).

Working with Personality, Interests, and Preferences

There are many ways of classifying personality and preference. Some of them are well-researched, self-report instruments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator; others are based more on your own intuition and observation. Anything that helps you understand which approaches usually work well or usually fail with a specific person will contribute to your success as an influencer. If you always approach other people in the way you prefer to be approached, you will likely be successful primarily with those who are most like you. This is a limitation most of us don't have the luxury of accepting.

Although it may seem surprising, most people are more than happy to let you know how to be successful in influencing them.

In our seminar, participants bring to class with them assessments from five or six colleagues. Although some participants express concern because the forms are not anonymous (since influence is very specific to particular relationships, anonymous feedback would not be very useful), few people have trouble getting important people in their lives to fill them out. Many people welcome the opportunity to tell their managers, peers, or key subordinates how to be more successful in influencing them! Participants often ask someone from their households or friends to fill one out as well. They are instructed to follow up in a way that will enable them to discuss in an open and productive way what the other would like them to do more of, less of, or differently.

In the Self-Study Guide, there is a short version of this assessment. You can fill it out on yourself, ask someone else to do it, or imagine what someone you need to influence might tell you about what you could do more of, less of, or differently. Once someone has let you know what works best, there is a certain tendency for him or her to show you that the recommended approach works. This can contribute significantly to your success, to both persons' benefit.

All of this will help when you come to choose the influence behaviors that will help you reach your goal with this person. Once you understand what works well with someone, you don't have to use only that behavior. It may not be the right tool for the job you have to do. But you might want to use that behavior to set yourself up for success, to create rapport or a comfort zone between you and the other person. For example, with someone who values your friendship and is open in expressing feelings, you might want to begin influencing with an honest disclosure. "Sam, I am uncomfortable in asking you to do one more thing on this project. I have had to come to you so many times in the past month." With someone who is more analytical, you could begin with a summary of why you need him or her to help you. In both cases, you will probably use negotiate behaviors to do the real influence work, but you have opened the discussion by using an approach that respects the other person's preferences. In addition, you will probably avoid using a behavior that drives the other person up the wall (yes, some people are allergic to your beautifully crafted rationales . . . or visions . . . or questions) and use one that will do the job almost as well.

It is always useful to keep in mind any vested interests that the other may have. Be sure you are not asking the other to go against those interests, and, if you can, find a way to align your interests with those of the other person. See whether you can meet some need in a way that is legitimate and fair, given what you are asking of him or her. Seek to understand any problems that might be created if the person does what you ask and find a way to make it easier for him or her to say "yes." Finding common ground between you and the other person - something you both have to gain by your success - is often a key prerequisite to successful influencing in difficult situations.

Examining Your Assumptions

Most of what we think we know about other people is not tested. We see or hear something they say or do and immediately explain it to ourselves. We categorize it (limited, of course, by our previous experience). If someone is important for you to influence, try noticing how you are explaining that person to yourself. ("She didn't stop by my desk this morning. She must be angry with me. Or maybe she noticed that I didn't include her in the conference invitation." "He's a sales guy; he won't want a detailed report.") Then, during the next few times you see that person, just notice what he or she does without making assumptions. Consider a variety of alternate explanations that fit the same facts. Then, before you have an important influence opportunity with this person, use your receptive behavior to learn something new about him or her. Find out, for example, how she or he likes to go about making decisions; what kind of information is helpful; how the person prefers to be influenced.

Assumptions make life easier; they also limit our freedom to experiment. Untested assumptions about the person we intend to influence can lead us down a fruitless path. We keep waiting for the person to behave in the expected way. When he or she doesn't, we become confused or angry. Or we avoid opportunities to influence, assuming that the other will not be open to change. A more constructive approach is to notice and question your assumptions about the person. Say, "What would I do if I didn't believe that?" Then do it.

Difficult People or Difficult Situations?

You've tried everything. You've been rational. You've been sensitive. You've been generous. You've been tough. Nothing has worked. Where, you ask, is the section on dealing with difficult people?

There isn't one. There isn't room for one. Because everyone is difficult for somebody, sometimes. Even you. Saying that someone is too difficult to deal with means the same thing as saying you have given up on influencing that person. Of course, you might want to do that . . . but if the issue is important enough, you won't. Instead, you will do your homework, find someone who can help you understand this person, examine your assumptions, try a different approach, do something that seems completely insane, vary your timing, or use some indirect influence.

And if that doesn't work, take the day off, and then figure out another way to get what you need. As George Herbert said in 1670 or so, "Living well is the best revenge."

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