The Idea of Influence

Something I learned in our opening session with Pat Wagner at CALLI: I’m uncomfortable with the idea of influence. Influencing people seemed somehow wrong to me, like you were making someone do something against his or her will. When our small group talked about influential people and what it means to be influential, someone mentioned a used car salesman. And I brought up Frank Underwood of House of Cards.

Great show, but I emphatically do not want to be like him.

Great show, but I emphatically do not want to be like him.

So obviously there was some discomfort with the idea of influence at our table. The reason I mentioned Frank Underwood was because I was thinking of the consummate politician. Someone who can woo. Someone who can talk to anyone without fear. And that’s just not me. Being a schmoozer is not someone I want to be, even if I thought I could. It doesn’t feel genuine to me, and probably wouldn’t to anyone I tried to schmooze. (This is not to disparage anyone who does have these talents. I have an uncle who I adore who can talk to anyone and is the best host I’ve ever met. He makes everyone in the room feel great, and everyone wants to spend time with him. And it’s completely genuine, coming from him. It just wouldn’t feel that way coming from me.)

Of course, in a leadership institute, being uncomfortable with influence becomes a bit of an issue. Good leaders, as I talked about in my last post, are always thinking far in the future, making up the future, and having to talk people into their way of seeing the future. This requires the ability to influence people. Luckily (and probably predictably to anyone who has thought about influence in depth), being influential doesn’t require being an extrovert, or being phony, or (to bring it back to House of Cards) being ruthlessly pragmatic.

In fact, the most important step to influence that we talked about was building a rapport with the person you are trying to influence. Listening to their point of view, making them feel validated and visible, and empathizing with them all go a long way to building relationships. And rapport-building can work with peers, bosses, people outside your organization–anyone. Thinking of the first step of influence as building a rapport with someone else really resonated with me. It seemed much less scary and out of my wheelhouse than trying to schmooze someone.

The second piece of influence that we talked about was getting information about the issue you are concerned about to the person you are trying to influence. After you’ve built a rapport with someone, you can present the information you want them to know. Rapport still has a part to play here–you want to present the information to the person in the way they’d best like to hear it, rather than the way you would like to present it. Pat pointed out that most people would rather skip the first step and go right to this step, but having a good rapport with a person makes them much more likely to listen to the information you bring them.

These two steps really made me rethink the way I look at influence. Although I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “being influential,” I’m not uncomfortable with the idea of rapport-building. I genuinely like striking up relationships with people and learning more about their worldview. I tend to naturally see all sides of a situation and understand why some people are on a different side of an issue than I am. I’m also a pretty empathetic person, so this step seemed completely doable to me. As for the second step, I’m a librarian. Information is my trade. And I work with children, so learning how to deliver information in ways that others can understand is something I think about a lot.

I walked away from this discussion with the knowledge that if I want to be an influential leader, it doesn’t require me to change my personality.

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