During a marriage that was marked from my perspective by an excessive amount of constant ongoing negotiation, I remember saying in exasperation, "It seems that there are always three of us to deal with here . . . you, me, and the relationship." In fact, we are different in each of our personal, business, and other influence relationships. Each of us has aspects of our culture, personality, talents, education, experience, associations, interests, and memories that connect in different ways with different people. In this way, each relationship is unique. Each person knows and connects to some aspects of me that would surprise another person. One friend sees me as goal-directed and organized; another experiences me as a flake. One subordinate finds my lack of attention to detail rather charming, making room for her to grow, while another is constantly disappointed that I need a reminder from him if he wants my input by a specific date. I have a very different influence relationship with each of them.
Influence relationships don't have to be very close; you don't even have to like one another. But you do need to acknowledge that there is a value to the relationship, that mutual respect and support is important, that "one hand washes the other." You need to know that you can trust the other person to keep agreements, to respect confidentiality, to approach the relationship with the intention of being fair. You need to believe that you have enough vested interests in common that you will both want to maintain the balance in the relationship.
Understanding what makes a particular influence relationship unique will help make it successful. Knowing what values and goals you share and what is likely to create conflict means that you will less often be surprised or unprepared to influence (or be influenced by) this particular person.
Overall, the most important thing to remember about influence relationships is that they only work well when they are kept in balance virtually all of the time. That means that neither party feels that he or she is always the target, rather than the initiator of influence. Both parties should have relatively equal expectations of gaining support from or influencing the decisions of the other.
One way to ensure that this is so is to make sure that you use both expressive and receptive behaviors whenever you influence, so there will always be an opening for the other to reciprocate. Another way is to have regular check-ins with the people who are the most important to your success. You can do this in a low-key way and be quite explicit with one another about what is working and what needs to change in your influence relationship. But it only works if you check in on a regular basis - not just when a relationship crisis looms.
Sometimes you choose the people with whom you will have an important influence relationship; often they choose you or are chosen for you. In all cases, it is important to remember that the past creates the future. Before you begin to influence in a new relationship, find out something about what the person might be expecting from you. These expectations might be based on past history with your organization, profession, or department, other people in your role, or past experiences with you that you may not recall (or with someone like you). Using receptive behavior to learn about preferred norms or processes (how he or she would like to work together on this), as well as any concerns or preferences he or she might have, can get the relationship off to a good start.
If you are surprised by the other person's reaction to your influence behavior, stop the process and ask about it or, if that is inappropriate, disengage temporarily and ask someone who is in a position to know what the problem might be. If you learn about a past problem that is creating concern or wariness in the present, avoid any tendency to become defensive or to try to justify the past. Instead, use this as a learning opportunity; use receptive behavior to find out all you can about it. If necessary, disclose and acknowledge your part in or your organization's contribution to any issues that may get in the way of the current influence opportunity. Use expressive behavior to let the other person know where you stand and what you hope to achieve by working together.
Each time you influence someone, you are making it easier or more difficult to influence him or her in the future. A successful and balanced outcome will motivate both of you to repeat the process, building a longer-term and more effective relationship.
If you plan to be part of an organization or industry or profession for the long run, there is no time like the present to build new and strong influence relationships. The very person you write off or treat disrespectfully today may be in a position to give or withhold support for something important to you tomorrow.
Some ways you can build influence relationships for the future include:
Over time, your influence relationships will become a rich source of ideas, information, referrals, and mutual support. These people will be your coalition partners, champion your ideas, recommend you for that promotion, write blurbs for the cover of your book, hire your children as summer interns, and stand up and be counted when you need them. You don't have to take them out to dinner, but it wouldn't hurt to do lunch once in a while.