CareersCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: How Influential People Communicate

By Susan de la Vergne

Thanks to one unforeseen problem after another, it’s starting to look like the team’s project deliverable is going to be late – and not just a little late, either. The team lead, Luis, thinks they can avoid a schedule miss if they shift direction and try a different approach. He has an idea in mind, a significant change, but his proposed shortcut comes with a fair amount of risk.

Luis knows the project manager is a risk-averse guy, and he’s also an expert in the work the team is doing. Therefore, he’s likely to be able to point out many potential pitfalls. Persuading the project manager to try something different, especially at this late date, isn’t going to be easy.

If Luis is going to be persuasive in this case, he’ll have to craft a convincing argument in favor of the risky shortcut. He’ll have to anticipate and navigate the project manager’s resistance, and he’ll need to be articulate and concise.

But if Luis is already regarded as an influential person, he won’t have to work as hard to make his case. That’s because influential people have already laid the groundwork for persuasion. They’re credible, trusted, and capable. They’ve proven, over time, that they know what to do and how to do it and that they incorporate input. When influential people put forward a new idea, even a risky one, that idea is better received than when it comes from someone who’s not seen as influential.

Influence and Leadership

While the art of persuasion is topic specific, influence is an element of leadership. In his emotional intelligence framework, Dr. Daniel Goleman groups elements of leadership into personal (within the individual) and social (interactions between people). Social elements of leadership include empathy, communication, and influence. Personal elements include optimism, trustworthiness, confidence, and initiative. Influence depends on these other abilities.

So the challenge that Luis, the project lead, faces in terms of his current proposal is that, if he’s not already an influential person, it’s too late to become one. Influence, in particular, takes time to develop in oneself, because it depends on first developing other abilities. You can’t be influential if you’re not a good communicator – especially with speaking and listening. Influential people also take initiative. They have confidence. They focus on the positive. All of these are elements of leadership that make up the foundation of influence.

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If Luis takes an honest look at himself in the mirror, he may realize he’s lacking some of these foundational elements. He could resolve to work on them, and some of them he could get started on right away. If he hasn’t been – up until now – an optimistic person, he can decide to become one. He can get up tomorrow morning and say, “Starting today, I’ll be more optimistic. I’ll resolve to see the possibility for success as often as possible.” Optimism is a choice.

If he hasn’t been a confident person, he can resolve to become more confident. “From now on, I’ll speak up!”

But influence doesn’t work like that. Luis can’t get up tomorrow morning and say, “From now on, I’ll be more influential!” because first he’d have to have other characteristics – things like confidence, initiative, subject-matter expertise, humility, commitment, and (of course!) communication skills.

Speaking, Listening, and Influence

I can’t think of an influential person I’ve ever known who was a poor communicator. Influential people typically speak well. Whether they’re leading a meeting, having a one-on-one conversation, or addressing an auditorium full of people, they’re engaging, confident, and prepared. The best can find interesting takes on even tiresome subjects. It’s more than just finding the right words and delivering messages with zing. They’ve found something to believe in, something interesting and worthwhile, in what they’re talking about.

But there’s more to it than great speaking skills.

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Truly influential people unite others’ expertise and opinions with their own. They articulate suggestions, then ask questions: “What do you think about doing it this way?” Then they engage in the most difficult and highly prized of all forms of communication: they listen. They listen for answers so they can incorporate input. They listen thoroughly so they can respond respectfully to dissenting opinions. They listen closely so they can continuously track and guide an extended conversation.

The best speakers in any setting are good listeners – listening for questions, disagreement, misunderstanding, whether in the form of spoken questions, facial expressions, or other kinds of readable body language. Influential people become influential because they listen well, gathering input that helps shape direction.

Influential people also keep discussions on track by expressing and re-expressing shared objectives. “Our top priority is improving product performance!” They’re like a compass – we’re going this way – and they don’t lose sight of the values and shared goals. It’s a good tactic to use when disagreements arise.

One more thing influential people seem to know: there are always gradations of understanding and interpretation, even for the most seemingly straightforward ideas, suggestions, or proposals. Our friend Luis, getting ready to describe a technical alternative for his team’s project quandary, will discover that everyone he talks with has a different level of interest and commitment to the idea and a different take on the likelihood of success. Much as we like to think there’s one way to understand something (especially when it’s obvious to us), the truth is there are many ways of regarding any idea, even one that seems straightforward.

Techniques

If you want to get started on becoming a more influential force for good where you work, here are a few communication techniques you can adopt to help you.

Step 1: Offer to carry an idea forward – to introduce change, propose new direction, describe strategy, etc. That’s initiative in this context and an opportunity to try out steps 2, 3, and 4.

Step 2: Always remember to ask for input. “What do you think about doing it this way?” Even if you’re the expert. In fact, especially if you’re the expert. If you know an expert at work who isn’t influential, chances are they never ask “What do you think?”

Step 3: Purge “No, but…” from your language. That’s just a way to shut down someone else’s idea. So is “Yes, but…” If you ask someone what she thinks and she says, “That idea seems to me like you’re trying to fit a gorilla with a glass slipper,” your response must not be “Yes, but don’t you think gorillas need to be wearing more elegant shoes?” “Yes, but…” is a thinly disguised “You’re wrong.” If you shoot ideas out of the sky prematurely, you won’t be part of trusting exchanges of ideas, one of those foundations of influence.

Step 4: Never be defensive. That’s easier said than done for some of us. Here’s the trick: always expect diverging perspectives, even on what seems to you the most obvious and inarguable approach or idea. Just figure that pushback and misunderstandings are the norm. When you expect disagreement and confusion (because it’s normal, not because other people are inferior beings), you can’t possibly be defensive. When you expect agreement, and when you think people will say “Wow, great idea!” without reservation, that’s when defensiveness arises.

Tomorrow Morning

As you stare into your first cup of coffee tomorrow morning, consider how your situation would improve if you decided to adopt, or improve on, some of these practices that lead to influence. If you were to volunteer to champion a cause, like a change initiative, or if you were to resolve never again to shut down discussion by leading with “No, but…” or “Yes, but…,” you’d be taking necessary initial steps to becoming an influential leader. You can also consider how you can become a better listener, too, and by that I mean listening fully, with focus, concentration, and generosity. That’s another all-important ingredient.

While you can’t get up in the morning and stride into work determined, henceforth, to be more influential, you can decide to adopt the communication practices and ways of interacting with others that will help you become an influential person.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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