Would you describe yourself as able to influence events around you? If yes, how do you do it? And if not, why not? We go through our lives and exert influence on everything and everyone around us. However, how much influence each of us has depends on the effort we put into it and means we use. In fact, most people would very rarely put in the effort to make a significant change and be truly influential. In most situations it is easier to invent ways how to cope with something we don’t like rather than to influence the environment in a way that things change.
You can’t change how people behave
The one sentence you hear pretty often when talking with managers is “you can’t change people”. And indeed if you like to drink and I come to you and tell you “you shouldn’t drink, please stop,” things will not change. And if I repeat it often enough you may start drinking even more just to spite me. For me to be able to influence you and help you to deal with your drinking problem I need to change not what you do, but what you think. And that one, even though it sounds even more difficult, is definitely doable. In fact, one can argue that politicians, media, or your kids are doing it all the time.
Understand the big picture
To be able to change someone’s behavior you need to see things in perspective, see the complete picture, and answer the basic question of “why”. People behave in a certain way for a reason, find the reason and you have a good basis of tackling it, changing what they think about the situation and how they react to it.
But it doesn’t end here. Answering “why” is just the first step. The second one is to figure out answer to even more important question: “What must people do differently to change the status quo?” The key is to find the root cause, the critical behavior that creates the current situation and then focus on that single behavior and reasons leading to it to make a lasting change.
It is in the mind
We tend to decide what our behavior should be based on what we believe the consequences will be. If I see a mad dog on the street I will turn around and take a different road as I believe he would bite me and that would be bad. If I see the same mad dog surrounded by couple of people who don’t mind he is there I will probably continue straight on and pass just next to him. My behavior is dictated by this causality effect in my head and since everything in my mind is imagined it can be influenced and changed.
To be able to influence someone’s behavior you need to ensure they can positively answer two simple questions: “Why should I?” and “Can I?” They need to understand what is the benefit for them to change the way they behave and they must believe that they are capable of this change. If they don’t see the reason or don’t think they are capable of doing what you propose then they will not even try.
Forget about words
If you believe you can talk someone into changing their behavior you will most likely fail. Verbal persuasion is more often than not seen as patronizing or even an attack and may end up in exactly the opposite reaction. The best way to make someone to change their behavior is through experience. Personal experience helps in redefining the causality pathways in your mind. If you have a drinking problem because you are stressed out from work and you believe a bottle of whiskey is the best way to relax I can show you that swimming few laps can achieve the same results. Me talking about it or even showing you will not help, you need to get to the pool and try it for yourself. Then there is a chance to change your mind.
If you need to use words, use stories
If you don’t have an easy way to let the person you want to influence experience the world as you experience it and words are the only means at your disposal then use them wisely. Don’t give advice, don’t try to be the guy who should be listened to, but rather tell a realistic story. The story you tell needs to be easily visualized by the person in question. He needs to be able to relate to it, the hero of the story needs to be someone he knows or he could know and the outcome must be something that could easily happen also to him. Vivid stories will transport the person from the role of a listener to the role of a participant and can have a profound and lasting effect.
Should the story be gloomy or positive? Should you focus on the negative outcome of undesired behavior or rather offer a positive message that will lead to a changed behavior and positive solution? You may want to talk about the negative outcome, but you must talk about the positive one. Remember, you need to let people know why they should change but also that they can do it. For more thoughts on story telling you can check Mentoring By Telling Stories.
How do you influence people around you? Are you acting subconsciously or do you have an agenda in mind? For lots of good ideas on influence I suggest you read Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson and team.
Photo: © freshidea / Dollar Photo Club