At some time or another, we are all faced with the challenge of getting others to buy into our ideas. It can be a daunting task. Here are a few tips to help you think about your approach.
Influencing starts before you have a project to influence people about
You need to have a good network of contacts and have established your credibility with all of them before you even think about trying to influence people on a particular issue.
If we are talking about influencing colleagues, then this means establishing a relationship of trust before getting to the stage of needing their cooperation on particular subjects. If we are talking about other stakeholders, it means doing some investigation into their priorities, their current concerns, their style, and anything else that may give you a few clues about how to deal with them.
Simply becoming visible to a stakeholder that you don’t know personally is in itself an important step in building credibility. Familiarity contributes to people’s tendency to believe something. The mere exposure effect guarantees that you win at least a little credibility by being familiar.
So having done the ground work, you now have a specific project where you need to gain people’s backing. What next?
Start with your allies
This is the safest place to begin when you have an important issue that you need to gain support for. Your allies are the people who you can trust to give you honest feedback on your proposal. They will help you to think things through and refine the idea before going to a decision-maker, who may have more power and could even veto the decision in its early stages.
Your allies may have insight into how your proposal will be received by different people in the organisation. All this can help you to develop a strategy for promoting your ideas. If you fear that you may lack credibility with some group of people, then your allies may be able to help you resolve this difficulty or they may even represent you, if their relationship with others is stronger than your’s.
Be clear about our own commitment
The first step in gaining others’ buy-in is to make sure that we have fully bought into the idea ourselves! This may sound obvious, but managers frequently find themselves in the position of having to pass on a message that has been decided at a higher level of the organisation. Unless you can generate some enthusiasm for the idea in your own mind, it is difficult to be influential when transmitting the message to others. If you still have doubts, go back to your management and ask for support in becoming convinced. Only when you talk with sincere conviction can you hope to enthuse others.
But what happens if you are genuinely skeptical about the idea, you may ask? In this case, it is important to stick to the facts and engage people in a discussion about the issue in a neutral tone, where you can highlight the benefits, but also allow people to express their doubts. You can respond to their doubts by quoting the facts again and by asking questions about what positive aspects may nevertheless be included in this proposal.
Balance advocacy and enquiry
As we have seen, to influence effectively we need to be able to use compelling arguments, which we deliver with energy and enthusiasm.
However, we should never get so enthusiastic that we forget to listen to other people’s concerns, even the concerns that are not voiced, but that are subtly expressed through a person’s non-verbal language. When doubt is expressed we need to acknowledge this and ask people to expand on it so that we can better understand where their reluctance comes from. Many influencers try so hard to get people to buy into their ideas that they end up over-selling and creating a useless kind of resistance that comes simply from the fact that people don’t like to feel pushed around.
Too often we tend to think of resistance as a nuisance that needs to be overcome. However, people resist because they feel strongly about something. It is always a good thing when people have opinions, rather than blindly following what you propose.
It may be hard work to arrive at a point where you can get an agreement, but when you do get the resistors on board, they often become your best allies because they have gone through an in-depth thinking process to arrive at the point of acceptance. During the process you may even pick up some good ideas. Not all resistance is based on false premises; sometimes the resistors have a point!
It sounds incredibly simple, but people will generally only listen to you when they feel they have been listened to.
In Blink Malcolm Gladwell quotes the US study which concluded that doctors were less likely to be taken to court by their patients when they had shown that they had actively listening to them. When people feel listened to, they feel respected and they are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, if ever you are not perfect. This is just one more benefit on top of all the advantages that can be gained from taking on board different points of view and building a true understanding with your colleagues.
Use constructive language and emphasise common ground
In very difficult influencing situations it may be worthwhile pointing out where you do have some areas of agreement, even if it is just the agreement that there is a problem to fix. Use phrases like, “Clearly we are both concerned to find a good outcome here”; or “I can tell that this is a subject that is very important to you. Me too.”
Ask open questions to get people talking about what they do want, rather than complaining about what is wrong. For example, “I see you are not happy with X, but tell me what do you really want?” or “what would be a good outcome for you?” or “Imagine we could do anything we wanted here, what would that look like for you.”
Be clear about what is not negotiable
There is no point in asking people’s opinions about things that cannot be changed. If there are absolute non-negotiable aspects, this needs to be made clear early on, but you can at least listen to how people feel about the issue, without giving the impression that something that cannot be changed is up for discussion after all.
People often get stuck because they fail to distinguish between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of an issue. Sometimes there is no choice about what is to be done, but it may be possible to talk about how to implement it. Try to be creative on the parts that are not cast in stone.
Notice when the moment is right for closure
Many otherwise good salespeople miss a sale because they don’t know when to stop talking. Make sure that you don’t continue influencing when the person you are talking to is ready to say yes.
Some simple closed questions are typically what is needed to get commitment. For example, “So, would you be prepared to give this a go?” or “Can I tell Mr Brown that you will be implementing this change in your team? Or “Can we agree on doing steps one and two and then coming back together to review?” There are many other examples.
You need to be careful not to back people into a corner, if they do not feel ready, but if you are getting signals that the person is buying your arguments, you may try to gain closure in order to move to the next stage. This is one of the most delicate aspects of influencing. If you move too quickly, people may feel bullied. If you move to slowly, you may miss an opportunity and give people chance to come up with more objections.
When you do decide to go for closure, you will still need to monitor things to check that people have not changed their mind after the discussion. For this reason, sometimes the public declarations of support can be useful. People find it more difficult to go back on what they said, if other colleagues have witnessed it.
You can always learn from every influencing situation, so take the time to analyse what worked well and what could have been done differently.
Seek feedback from others on how they feel the process worked. Acknowledge any mistakes you made. Ironically, this can sometimes boost your credibility with others. The review process helps everyone to feel comfortable that things have been done in a good way and for you personally it is an excellent way to constantly learn and refine your style.