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Chapter 18

Influencing Indirectly

What Is Indirect Influence?

Indirect influence means simply that you keep your influence goal in mind and take some action other than dealing directly with the person or group whom you wish to influence. This can mean either that you work through other people or that you use other means to accomplish your goal. Indirect influence is normally done in the open, however, and should not be confused with manipulation, in which your motivations and agenda are intentionally hidden.

When Is Indirect Influence Appropriate?

Most of the time it will be easier to influence others directly. Here are some situations in which that may not be as effective:

These situations and others like them will lead you to consider other means of influencing.

Influencing Through Other Individuals

Sometimes the best solution is to find someone who is in a better position to influence the target person than you are and delegate the influencing to him or her. (Of course, this will require you to influence that person to take on the responsibility of influencing the target person or group.)

If this is your best option, be sure to discuss your influence goal very thoroughly with the other person and give him or her the benefit of the planning work you have done. You are giving up some control of the specific outcome in exchange for the chance to achieve your goal, so it is essential that you trust the other person and share all relevant information, including your own areas of flexibility. You should also be very open to this person's advice regarding your goal; he or she will have to believe in it to be able to achieve it for you or your team.

Influencing as Part of a Group

When an issue is extremely important or affects a great many people, or when the influence target is at some political or hierarchical distance, you will want to consider organizing a group in order to influence. One middle manager's opinion may not count for much with the COO, but a cross-functional committee of concerned managers may be able to get a hearing. One son or daughter may not be able to convince an elderly parent to give up the privilege of driving, but all the siblings acting in concert may be effective.

It often takes not only a large number, but also a broad coalition of people and vested interests to influence senior corporate or government officials to take action or change course. It is easy to dismiss a small homogeneous group as "a bunch of cranks," but much more difficult to do so when they represent diverse aspects of the community. On the other hand, recent research suggests that change can happen rapidly when the right people with a powerful idea "tip the balance."

Debate as an Indirect Influence Tactic

One common approach that does not work well as a direct influence tactic, although it has other important uses, is debating. This often comes as a surprise to people, especially those who are more analytical. While debating an issue can develop strong ideas and make sure that bad ideas don't go unchallenged, it is a contest of ideas and positions with winners and losers. The greatest influence impact is on those who are listening to and/or judging the debate. Since most debate is focused on proving that your position is right and the other's position is wrong, the debaters are likely to become more firmly fixed in the rightness of their cause or opinion, rather than influencing one another. Thus, you can debate with another person as a way of influencing a third party (of course, it's best if both debaters are aware that this is what they are doing), but there is little hope of influencing the other debater.

Disengaging as a Means to an End

Disengaging can be an effective way to manage time, authority issues, and relationships. Sometimes moving away temporarily can help you to reach a satisfactory outcome when moving forward would only create greater resistance or loss of an opportunity.

Sometimes it is useful to maintain your individual connection to the influence target, but move to a different set of tactics. For example, when you are at an impasse (or, preferably, when you see that you are headed in that direction but before it occurs), you can choose to disengage temporarily. My husband, who is particularly good at this tactic, used to say in a line reminiscent of a popular commercial for wine, "Let's make no decision before its time; we can discuss this later." Artfully, he always manages to do this just before I have committed to an absolute "no" on the issue. This tactic allows the use of persistence and timing to have its effect. When you choose to disengage, it's important to let the other know that you'll be back - and often to establish when you will reconvene. This prevents disengagement from looking like retreat.

Of course, there will be times when you recognize that there is no point in continuing an influence attempt, given the time and energy it looks as if it will take compared to the likelihood and value of success. In that case, disengagement may be permanent. (It may also provide an opportunity to refocus your influence plan on a more appropriate goal or a different person.) You can still gain some influence value from such a situation by being graceful rather than huffy about it. "I can see that this issue is of great importance to you. As long as you are willing to take the major responsibility for seeing that it gets done, I'm willing to do it your way." Then let go of the issue completely, rather than wait in hiding until something goes wrong so you can say, "I told you so." You'll pay for that. This is an example of "disarming" or letting go of issues that are more important to the other than to you and saving your influence energy for issues that you care about more. This may create a sense of fairness and reasonableness that you can call on later. On the other hand, you may be better off using such opportunities for more direct negotiation. A quid pro quo that is a done deal is more effective than "you owe me one" - something that is almost never remembered in the same way by both parties.

Using Other Means to Influence Indirectly

When you do not have access to a "subject-matter expert" and the issue involves knowledge that the other person does not think you have, influencing through books and articles by people that he or she respects may be helpful. This is better done early in the process, however, rather than as an "I told you so" attempt that is likely to inspire a defensive and resistant response.

Finally, one of the most useful indirect influence tools (a form of disengaging briefly) is the use of humor. Knowing when to use a story, joke, or wry comment to relieve tension or keep the encounter from going too far in the wrong direction is an art. But there is one clear rule about the use of humor in influencing. It should NEVER be used in a sarcastic manner or in any way that might reflect negatively on the other person or something he or she holds dear. It should be either slightly self-deprecating or directed at a force or third party that you both consider a "common enemy." And you must also be artful about bringing the conversation back toward where you want it to go.

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