Practical Tips to Improve Your Influencing Skills

Influence begins with being genuinely interested in people
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As we learned from David Maister in a previous article on emotional intelligence, the art of relationships lies in working with and in managing the emotions of others. Influencing is more about feelings than facts and boils down to how your behavior is perceived and how it affects others.

The template for this approach goes to Dale Carnegie, whose 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People set out six ways to develop influence:

  1. Be genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile and show friendliness.
  3. Remember people's names.
  4. Be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Talk in terms of the other person's interests.
  6. Make the other person feel important.

Carnegie's advice may make some accountants shift uncomfortably in their seats, but his core philosophy has returned to prominence in the 21st century, as psychological science and management theory have focused more attention on emotional intelligence.

The Difference between Influencing and Persuasion
Influence and persuasion are often confused, and while they may be used to attain the same goal, they are different strategies.

Where influence is about the messenger and involves feelings and values, persuasion is more about the message. It also helps if you can communicate knowledge in a way that achieves clear, agreed outcomes. Persuading people is more deliberate and obvious than exerting influence and achieves more tangible effects. But it is also more short-term and demands regular reinforcement.

If you can develop influence in your role, you will find it easier to persuade your colleagues and clients to do what you want.

Going back to Carnegie and Maister, developing rapport with people is central to their advice. When talking with people, if you emphasize the things you have in common, and even react to them sympathetically in nonverbal ways, you should find that they become less resistant.

Fine-tune your antenna to know whether your communication is being accepted or rejected. If you feel your approach is failing to establish rapport, change your behavior slightly. If you change your stance, line of reason, or tone of voice, the other person will usually reflect the change back.

Are You Listening?
In The Seven Habits of Successful People, Stephen Covey stresses the importance of listening rather than just focusing on getting your point across. As he puts it, the desire to be heard can sometimes get in the way of listening.

To be a trusted advisor – whether in business or practice – you're going to have to be a good listener. But doing this is harder than it sounds. “We tend to listen for what's familiar (it makes us comfortable) rather than what's unique about this person,” noted Maister. You have to make the effort to listen and focus on your client or colleague as an individual.

The second secret of good listening is to ask good questions and listen to the answers. Listening is a data-gathering exercise and formulating well-focused questions can throw new light on the problem you're addressing.

When discussing an issue, don't start by assuming your sole mission is to discover the answer there and then. Ask questions that focus on the problem, not the solution. Defining the issue together will uncover more information and potentially disruptive underlying assumptions.

Remember to apply your nonverbal influencing skills, too. Keep good eye contact and your body language relaxed, but alert. And never underestimate the value of silence. When listening to what others are saying, don't just analyze what has been in your head about what has been and how you are going to react to it. Let go of your ego and pay attention to how the conversation is going. Is someone hogging the conversation or holding back? A good question can put you back on track.

If an interesting insight comes to the surface – perhaps a common reason clients or customers give for their buying decisions – try following up to find out more about the underlying factors.

If you can suppress the urge to leap to conclusions and suspend your judgment for a while, you may discover the most fruitful exchanges happen when the people talking relax enough to explore their mutual understanding.

Sometimes the discussion will dry up or stall. This is a good time to summarize what you have heard. Don't repeat what the other people have said, but your own interpretation to check, “Did I get that right?” This helps you retain what you were told, but also confirms to the talker that you've been paying attention.

We know that dealing with feelings and emotions can be challenging for accountants more used to dealing with accounting arithmetic and the quirks of tax codes. But you can't avoid emotions, and part of being a good listener is knowing how to acknowledge and respond to them with your own feelings. Your objective should be to gain firsthand knowledge. Speaking honestly about your own emotional state can help others to open up. Remember that listening is not about point scoring and laying blame, but about uncovering new insights.

If you can bring all of these components of emotional intelligence together, you could find that your ability to help others define their own problems and take responsibility for the solutions opens the door to a new level of professional success.

Further Reading

How to Improve Your Business Listening Skills
Stop Looking - Start Listening For Your Next Selling Opportunity
Search Inside Yourself (Online leadership resources from Google)
Six essentials of influencing and persuading (CIMA Global)

About John Stokdyk

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