You know those conversations you dread having because you just don’t know how the other person is going to react? Or you don’t want them to react a certain way? Or you just can’t seem to get them to see things from your perspective? Those conversations require a little more planning. Let’s talk about six ways you can influence any conversation.
The term “influence” sometimes gets a bad rap. As a verb, it is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to affect or alter by indirect or intangible means”. But if you look at the definition of it as a noun, the meaning seems to take a slightly nefarious turn. “Corrupt interference with authority for personal gain” is one example. When I’ve brought up this concept with clients, there’s often someone who is averse to the idea. It somehow feels manipulative or dishonest in nature. I say hogwash. Let’s break it down into six steps and see how you feel about it then.
1. Set Your Outcome
The first step is to figure out the goal. What exactly do you want the person you’re engaging with to do, say, think or even feel differently by the end of the conversation? The more specific you can be, the clearer the path for getting there. Spend some time on this. Make sure your goal is achievable in one meeting. If it’s not, break it down further to something that is.
2. Assess the Situation
Ask yourself some questions to help you understand the other person’s perspective going into this conversation. What might cause them to see things differently? What will motivate them in this situation? What sort of incentives can you provide? Or withhold? Where are you willing to be flexible? And not? Is there anything you should avoid saying or doing because it will only escalate things in a nonproductive way?
3. Choose Your Appeal
The way you choose to appeal to the other person in this interaction depends in part on what you’ve figured out from the first two steps. It also depends on what you know about the person. What appeal do you think will work best to get to your outcome? Are they more likely to respond to logic? Or should you try to inspire them? Are you trying to negotiate something? Or find common ground? When should you draw the line and excuse yourself from the conversation if it’s not productive?
4. Structure Your Approach
Start by defining how you want the other person to feel, what you want them to do or think. Given that, and given the appeal you’ve chosen, how should you start? How might they respond to your opening? What objections or concerns are they likely to raise? How will you respond in turn? What questions can you ask to make sure you fully understand their position? The more you can plan out how you think the conversation might unfold, the more you can prepare.
5. Plan for the Worst
Yep, you read that right. Plan for the whole thing to go down the toilet in a terrible, cosmic flush. Identify all the ways in which this might happen. Every possibility you can think of, no matter how unlikely. What are some things you should definitely not say? What are some things they might say that would upset or anger you? How will you stay calm if that happens? Where is your personal “red line”—that moment where you have reached an impasse that cannot be overcome? How will you exit the meeting if you reach it? When I plan for the worst, it helps me troubleshoot. I often realize I can dissipate potential obstacles before I even get to the meeting just by thinking them through.
Don’t rehearse to the point where you’re reciting your opening from memory in a robotic way. But do practice by running through how you want to open the conversation, the tone and approach you want to take, and key points. It’s also valuable to reflect for a moment on what you’ve figured out from this preparation process that can help you be even more effective in the actual meeting.
See? Influencing a conversation doesn’t have to be underhanded, corrupt or nefarious. It’s simply the process of thinking through what your goals are and how you can use a conversation or meeting to get there. It’s about working with other people to move things in a direction that produces a positive outcome. For some, this is an exercise in self-respect where you stand your ground instead of being pushed around. For others, it might be more about acting with greater clarity and intent.
Whatever your motivation, be thorough. Be thoughtful. Be effective. Go get ‘em.