If practicing influence skills is like participating in a fitness program and planning for influence is like preparing for a journey, carrying out an influence plan is a lot like doing improvisational theater. You go in with a goal, some ideas about how to reach it, and a lot of knowledge about the situation. There is no script, however, and you are not the only actor. You have to respond to the lines the other players feed you and to the developing situation without losing track of where you want the performance to go. You have to be fast on your feet and flexible in your approach.
No matter how carefully you plan, something will happen that you didn't expect. Influence is a dynamic process, and it isn't a monologue - there are other players. The approach that sounded great to your spouse may leave your manager cold. The rationale that you developed for your customer may be irrelevant, now that he has spoken to your competitor. Your teenage daughter may have obtained her counselor's support for her "sabbatical" idea. What do you do now?
Probably the best piece of advice I have ever received on the subject is also the simplest (although not the easiest) to apply. If what you're doing isn't working, stop doing it. Do nothing; do something - almost anything - different. But don't continue down the road you started on, because it will take you somewhere that you don't want to go. This is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, the more time you have spent preparing (and preparing is a good thing), the harder it might be for you to drop it and deal with the situation as it actually is. That is the paradox of planning, and why it is good to consider "what-ifs" when you plan.
Once you have stopped yourself, there are two ways to go. Here is where it is really helpful to know yourself as an influencer. If you are the kind of person who does best with some time to think before you act, go straight to the most important indirect influence technique and disengage. Be open about it, you'll get some credit for paying attention. And you'll keep your foot out of your mouth. Say, "That's interesting. I'd like to think about what you just told me. Let's get together again tomorrow" (or next week, this afternoon, even after a short break if time is pressing). Then think about your plan in the context of the new information and adjust it.
If you are the sort of influencer who thinks out loud, who does best by staying in the situation and working with it, go immediately to receptive behavior if you are not already there. Use the inquire and listen behaviors and keep doing it until you have as much new information as you need. Then you can decide whether or not you want to disengage in order to confer with others or to redesign your approach.
You were only being reasonable, so why on earth did he get so defensive? Or why can't you schedule a meeting with your colleague to discuss this issue? Why is she always "too busy"? Why does your spouse have a last-minute reason not to go to every single meeting you have scheduled with the new contractor?
You will often be puzzled by the nature of someone's response to your attempts to influence him or her. He or she may not behave in the way that you planned or assumed that he or she would. And it is hard to treat this behavior as a valuable source of information (rather than a secret plot to make you crazy), but it is.
First, assume that the person is not actually bad, wrong, or stupid, but in fact, that he or she is behaving in a way that makes perfect sense, given the way the person understands the situation. In order to find out how he or she understands it, so you can correct or deal with it, you can try to "reverse engineer" from the response to the interpretation. You can do that in two ways. Sometimes you can simply ask, in a neutral and curious way: "I've noticed that you haven't been able to make any of the meetings with the contractor. I wonder if there is a reason why you'd just as soon not see him right now?" If you do this, it is absolutely essential that the other person read the subtext (unstated but important meaning) as saying, "You are a reasonable person and I know you are behaving in a rational way. Help me understand it." Any hint of sarcasm or talking down to the other will be fatal to achieving your goal.
If direct influence is not available to you (the other person has left the room in a huff, slammed down the telephone, called you bad names, or simply hasn't been heard from for weeks), then you have another option. Think your way into his or her skin for a moment and ask yourself, "I am reacting as if I have something to lose or something to fear; what is it?" Because defensive, resistant, and avoidance behavior is a normal, fight-or-flight mammalian self-protective response, the answer to that question is often quite clear. You may be surprised or hurt that the other person would think you were capable of something like that, but you will have to get over it if you want to influence. Don't make the person's misjudgment of you the issue. Instead, consider it an interesting, if incorrect, assumption and work with it, using curiosity rather than self-protection.
Once you have an idea of what is going on for the other person, you have a new influence opportunity: you will need to convince her or him that you are not intending to do the thing that he or she fears. (Or if you are, you need to forget about influencing that person yourself. You cannot influence others to appreciate and welcome what they see as threatening when you are the source of that threat.)
As much as I may see influence as an opportunity to affect the course of someone else's behavior, the only behavior I can affect directly is my own. The success or failure of an influence opportunity is determined, largely, by how well I can do that.
As part of your preparation, you have examined your own wants, needs, attitudes, and assumptions related to this opportunity. In the actual situation, you will put that information to work. For example, you will notice when your own issues are getting in the way of moving toward your goal.
The following signs indicate that you need to manage your own behavior:
Sometimes the best way to manage yourself and the situation is to disengage temporarily (see Chapter 18) and reflect on what is going on; you may be able to return with a more productive approach. In any case, you will be more in charge of yourself. You can sometimes ask the other person to take a time-out with you, discuss the way the meeting or conversation is going, and think of a better way to proceed. This must be done in an objective way. Blaming the other person for the problems you are having in influencing him or her will only escalate those problems. Even in very difficult situations, asking for feedback and/or disclosing can turn the situation around. For example, I have found that if I notice that I am becoming excessively self-righteous or defensive and call myself on it before the other person does, this action invariably brings a measure of good humor to the conversation. This can clear the way for influence to occur.
One of the most effective and most difficult self-management tasks is that of consciously making the other person look more intelligent, more reasonable, more well-intentioned than you believe him or her to be. It is one exaggeration that will work to your benefit as an influencer. People tend to live up - or down - to your expectations of them. In summary, managing yourself is perhaps the most difficult aspect of being an effective influencer. It requires an ability to acknowledge your own ego needs and tendencies toward self-deception and to treat them with gentleness and a certain affectionate humor, without being limited by them. In other words, you have to be a grownup about influence in order to keep your inner child from throwing a tantrum at the wrong time or hiding in the closet for fear of punishment.
One of the most underused and effective influence techniques is that of keeping your mouth shut. We humans have a habit of getting in our own way by stepping on the other person's lines or interrupting his or her thought process. We are sometimes so afraid of silence that we answer our own questions and argue both sides of an issue, thereby doing the other person's work (and not, it goes without saying, influencing anyone but ourselves).
The most important ideas we express, the most important questions that we ask, need to be followed by enough silence to allow the other person time to consider (especially if he or she is a classic introvert and likes to think before responding). In fact, this silence can be where influence occurs, because in the end, influence happens in the other person.
Mostly, we don't let the silence happen because we are afraid of being interrupted. We are concerned that we will forget where we were going, that the other will take the lead in the conversation.
Remember under those circumstances that, if you have done your planning, you will be confident enough to find your way back to leading or guiding the conversation, once again, toward your goal.
And, because influence is always a dialogue, you may learn something in the process.
In our fast-paced lives, opportunities for influence come and go in a flash. You won't always have time to plan. Still, there are a few things that you can keep in mind to help you when you have to take influence action on the fly.
And remember, if what you are doing isn't working, stop doing it. Nothing works all the time, even with the same person or in the same situation. In day-to-day influence, the best approach is akin to the scientific method. Know what you want to achieve, make an educated guess about how best to achieve it, experiment actively, be objective about the outcome, and be ready to try again until you succeed or realize that you are not going to accomplish the result you hope for.
In Part III, we'll examine some special issues in influence: the ethical implications of being an active influencer, the use of electronic media to influence, the means for influencing indirectly, and some ideas for next steps in your growth as an active influencer.