The first thing to appreciate is that by far the best way to improve on this theme is to make sure you have lots of Trust and Credibility between both sides of the relationship. The first theme forms an unavoidable prerequisite to successful Communication and Influence. Think about it. If you don’t trust someone, the more they communicate, the more suspicious you will become. Similarly, it is very difficult to influence someone if they don’t trust you (i.e. they are suspicious of your motives). To be blunt, if you haven’t got the first theme covered, you will probably be wasting your time trying to strengthen Communication and Influence
Instead, as you work to improve Trust and Credibility, add in a few of the ideas below and then work on Problem Solving and Conflict Resolution.
Communication is a topic which has received extensive coverage in a host of other books, so I’ll keep the communication element of this theme succinct. In fact, you might want to scroll over these to get to the more relevant parts about influence further down!
Ideas about Communication…
- Communication is a message you want someone to receive. People tend to communicate in their own words and not in the words their stakeholder will readily identify with. Speak their language, not yours.
- How will you know they have given the same meaning to the message they received as the one you intended to deliver? Always find ways to check understanding so you can adjust and refine your messages. This establishes a two-way process and can also offer them the opportunity to send their own messages to you.
- Communication is rarely perfect. People always seem to clamour for more, yet don’t play their part in consuming the well-intentioned stream of messages. Then they complain of too much communication. Finding the right balance seems to be more of an art than science, but you can tip the scales in the right direction by asking people specifically what they want, when they want it and how they want it.
- Consistent approaches/processes improve consumption because people learn what to expect and where to get it. So if you are producing regular updates about your project, stick to the same format, design and structure.
- A picture paints a thousand words. More people than you may realise think in pictures, or at the least organise knowledge around a picture or diagram.
- You want to communicate to your stakeholder. Perhaps they want to communicate with you too? Think about being a role model and helping them to tailor their approach to match your needs, then turn the tables and find out from them how they would like to consume your messages. This makes effective communication an agenda item in the relationship.
Turning to the subject of influence in these themes, a fundamental point to stress here is that we are looking towards bringing the level of influence into a more even balance between the two sides of the relationship. Never equal – but to a level where each feels they have the ability to get a fair hearing if there is something they feel strongly about, and that the other party will listen, understand and bring this into account when making their final decision. This lies at the heart of healthy collaboration.
One of the big inhibitors of achieving this balance is the subconscious – or at least unspoken – perceptions of power that each side has of the other. As I explained in Chapter Three, power provides a potent short cut to influence. One of the side effects of developing great power is that others yield quickly, sometimes too quickly, and without making an attempt to counter-influence because they think it is pointless.
Since the idea here is to build stronger relationships, the relative power of each side, both actual and perceived, can be explored to look for the inequality. This will help you to identify things you can do to adjust the balance (it might be worth taking another look at Chapter Three before you move on here).
Try asking yourself (and others if appropriate) who is the most powerful – you or your stakeholder? See if you can also determine why that is the case. Remember to consider a wide range of different types of assets and skills which build up each individual’s power. Also, factor in the context in which you are both working. In some situations, very powerful assets are virtually useless. The opposite can also be true. The only power which works independently of context is the type which comes out of the socket in the wall.
The next question builds further. Does your stakeholder perceive this differently from you? It might be helpful to look for evidence of the way they react to your influence attempts and how they attempt to influence you. If they are letting you walk all over them, they clearly believe you are more powerful, even if you don’t see it that way.
The type of influencing tactics they use may also give you valuable insight. If they are using Ingratiation, Personal Appeals and/or Pressure, they could be feeling a little powerless right now. The more they use Consultation and Inspiration, the stronger they’ll be feeling (I’ll go into these in more detail in the next chapter).
If there is a big imbalance between you in terms of power and influence, something needs to happen to improve the quality of the relationship before it leads to problems. Having said that, I’d put the chances as quite high that if the inequality is big, you’ve already got problems on your hands!
If you think you are more powerful than your stakeholder, consider these ideas to help them increase their influence with you…
- Share the insights in this chapter with them. Learn together the importance of great relationships. Even at a cursory level, it will help them to understand your motives and approach and build their confidence.
- Encourage them to share their opinions and don’t abuse them when they do if you don’t like what you hear! You have only one chance to make this idea work, because next time they’ll have learned not to believe you and will keep their head down!
- Tone down your references to powerful friends, veiled threats, oodles of charm and charisma. They’ve already got the message, now is the time to connect with them and stop showing off!
- Check out how you come across. High levels of drive and determination (very powerful skills) are interpreted differently by others. You may think that it is a normal and straight way of operating; others will just find it intimidating. Communication is about tone, expression and a thousand other unspoken signals. I remember one individual in a workshop protesting that he was not highly determined by repeatedly jabbing his finger at the desk between us!
- Boost your regard (demonstrably) for their power assets and skills. Praise them and help them to feel stronger than they currently are. Don’t pretend or embellish beyond reason or they will start to wonder what your game is. Appropriately done, this can work wonders for their confidence.
- Let them know when they have successfully influenced you. It is all too easy for highly influential people to miss this opportunity to give this aspect of their relationships a little lift.
- If it is relevant due to the complexity of the Influencing Goal you are working towards, consider instituting processes or procedures which facilitate fair involvement for all the parties, particularly when it comes to problem solving; but more on that in a moment.
- Think very carefully before you reject their influence attempts. It may be absolutely the right decision, but remember that it is all too easy for the other side to see rejection and failure. So bear this in mind when you communicate your decisions. If you can help them understand your process, the reasons why, and also thank them for playing a valuable role in pressure testing and challenging, you are much more likely to build a stronger relationship from your powerful position.
And if you’re the one who needs to become more influential…
- Do a reality check. When things are not going our way, it is natural to look for something to blame. The actual level of influence you have in the relationship might be good, but for the right reasons it’s not working right now. You cannot be right in your views and opinions all the time – can you? So check out with a few wise friends to make sure you are not imagining your lack of power and influence.
- Look more deeply at the power dynamic. Often, powerful people bring along the power that works for them elsewhere. That may not be so useful in the current situation. Likewise, assets and skills that you have which don’t normally give you an edge could be more useful here. If you spot opportunities, start to figure out ways to bring attention to the assets which should hold sway.
- Decide the level of influence you must have to make the relationship right for you; how much you would have if you could and how does this compares with the current position. Put another way, what have you got, what do you need, and what would you like to have? If you can come up with specific examples of recent events to illustrate this, it will help you prepare for the next idea.
- Find a way to raise the subject with your stakeholder. Get it out in the open. They may not realise it’s a problem, nor that it could be working against their interests. This is much easier to say than do. Careful consideration of the other topics in this book should help; for instance, the work you have done on understanding their agenda, risk/opportunity management. The creation of a compelling vision and benefits register can also prepare you for engaging them on this issue (more on this in the next chapter). In essence, this idea is about influencing them to allow you to have more influence in the relationship.
- How could you break down the influence element of your work together? Finding different parts that you can apply your influence to. Sometimes the problem comes down to misunderstanding what each side can and should be able to influence, and what it is reasonable to expect each side to influence. For example, if your stakeholder is an external organisation, it will be appropriate for you to influence their response to your service requirements, but another thing altogether will be influencing their decisions on resource allocation or client strategy. You may wish to influence them to put Sarah on your case, but that is probably not realistic nor appropriate provided they deliver the agreed level of service.
- Consider this problem in the context of the wider group of stakeholders around your Influencing Goal. Nobody works in isolation, and all are affected by a myriad of powerful others. There could be opportunities for you to leverage off the relationships you have with other stakeholders to increase your influence with the stakeholder you are thinking of right now. Much has been written on the power of group psychology where individuals are hugely influenced by the group around them, even to the point of agreeing with things that are clearly wrong.
This is an important topic and area of relationships which needs to be worked on consistently. There is little room for complacency. It builds on Trust and Credibility and, in turn, prepares the way for Problem Solving and Conflict Resolution. That is where we can now turn, but a final thought here – if you’re no good at communication, I rather doubt you’ll be any good at influencing!