Maria Guida is an executive speaking coach at Successful Speaker, Inc., in New York City. Phone: 718-884-2282.
Association leaders often need to make decisions and achieve results when they don't have unilateral authority to act. That's where building influence comes in. Here are four communication strategies to help you develop the influence you need to build relationships and get things done.
Leaders often must try to influence professionals over whom they have no real authority: board members, colleagues who are not their direct reports, members of multifunctional teams, or anyone who might be resistant to ideas being proposed.
When faced with these challenges, how can leaders use their expertise, work collaboratively, and build consensus to achieve the best results?
Influencing without authority is not easy. It requires understanding and diplomacy and can be achieved by practicing communication skills that project a spirit of goodwill and respect. While communicating in this way takes extra time, effort, and imagination, it is a critical factor in ensuring the effectiveness of your business communication and your power to influence.
How to do it? Four strategies are key: active listening, looking for positive intent in others, identifying what others value, and monitoring your own speech.
It is often wise to encourage your conversation partners to express themselves fully before you present your own thoughts, opinions, and perceptions. People are more likely to listen when they feel that they themselves have been heard. (When writing emails, be sure you have received your readers' input before writing anything that could be interpreted as a final decision.) Listen actively using the following five steps:
1. Blend. Blending is any behavior that reduces the differences between you and another person. The goal is to increase rapport. People are often thinking, "Are you with me or against me?" so building rapport is critical. Blending means that you mirror (but don't mimic) your conversation partners' tone of voice, tempo, volume, facial expressions, and posture. (One behavior that you should not mirror is aggressive or hostile behavior, of course.) Give receptive signals: Say, "Oh, yes, I see, I understand," and use a lot of head nodding.
2. Backtrack. The goal of backtracking is to show that you are listening and want to understand. When you backtrack, you repeat verbatim your conversation partner's words. Here, it is important not to paraphrase; use the exact words. This is especially useful on the phone.
3. Clarify. Ask clarifying questions. Your goal is to gather as much information as possible and delay giving your own response. Clarifying questions begin with the words "why," "how," and "tell me about … ." Backtracking has three main benefits: It shows you are patient and supportive, it helps reveal any hidden agendas that your conversation partners may have, and it often prompts an unreasonable conversation partner to behave more reasonably.
4. Summarize. Your goal is to show that you have listened and understood. Here, you can paraphrase. Say something like, "So, if I understand you correctly … ."
5. Confirm. Your objective is to be sure that your conversation partners feel satisfied. You can ask directly, "Do you feel understood? Is there anything else?" Most people welcome these surprisingly attentive questions; they will appreciate your desire to help them feel satisfied with the dialogue.
Positive intent is the good purpose meant to be served by any communication or behavior. Always look for positive intent in others. Give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when a situation is difficult or has not turned out well—and even if your listeners have caused a problem.
Simply say, "Thank you for … ." Here, identify the person's positive intent, even if you have to dig deep to find it. If you truly cannot see positive intent in your conversation partners, make something up that is plausible, and blend as you offer your thanks. When you do this, it is unlikely that your conversation partners will deny that this was their positive intent. Most people want to be seen in the best light and appreciate the opportunity to save face.
Look for opportunities to demonstrate your desire to understand people by identifying their highly valued criteria.
Criteria are the standards we use to determine whether an idea or experience is positive or negative. They are important in conversations where differing points of view are being discussed. You show respect, flexibility, and cooperation when you identify what your conversation partners value. (This applies to your writing as well as your spoken communication.)
Here is a simple example: You and a colleague are trying to determine the best location for a staff training session. She might express a preference for an office training room, a hotel, or a resort. If you don't agree with her choice, you can avoid a tug-of-war by gently asking why she made that choice. Her answer will reveal her highly valued criteria.
If, for example, she says the training room at your office would be inexpensive or cost nothing, you know she values economy. If she says a hotel would decrease distractions, you know she values the ability to focus. If she says a resort would promote relaxation and bonding, you know she values teamwork.
As soon as you understand your conversation partner's highly valued criteria, summarize verbally by saying, "So, if I understand you correctly … ." After she confirms that you did understand, say, "Is there anything else?"
Once you shed light on your partner's highly-valued criteria and express your own, together you can brainstorm and prioritize to find a mutually satisfying plan of action.
Business discussions can be challenging when one, both, or all parties are feeling stressed or behaving inappropriately for any reason. Monitoring the way you speak will provide a powerful opportunity to influence relationships for the better. (The same considerations apply when you are drafting emails.)
Monitor your tone of voice. Your tone signals the opinions you hold about your conversation partners, whether positive or negative. When your tone contradicts your words, you send a mixed message. When you hear yourself sending a mixed message, acknowledge it verbally and explain it to your listeners. For example, you might say, "I'm sorry if I sound a bit rushed" or "I know I sound angry. That's because this issue is very important to me."
Respond to criticism strategically. Thank people when they criticize you. When you defend yourself, you often appear to be admitting guilt. Just say (or write), "Thank you for telling me how you feel" or "Thank you for being honest" or simply "Thank you." "Thank you" is a complete sentence.
Interrupt tactfully. When someone is shouting or dominating a conversation or complaining with increasing negativity, repeat the person's name over and over calmly. After getting his or her attention, state or restate your intent.
Give positive reinforcement. Often, we must engage in business conversations, meetings, and written correspondence with people whom we perceive as "challenging." Be on the lookout for the positive behavior they exhibit. When you see it, you might say (or write) something like, "That's one of the things I admire about you: your ability to … ."
When you adopt these communication strategies and continue to practice them, you will help bring out the best in people, pave the way for harmonious business communication, and develop real influence, even when you lack direct authority.