I’d love to be more influential. I’ve read a lot about it, but I can’t seem to figure it out. I’m not the kind of person who oozes charisma. I don’t think I look the part, nor am I much of a smooth talker or extroverted life-of-the-party type. If I’m honest, I’m pretty dorky.
So why do I get asked to lead new projects? Why have people turned to me to orchestrate change? To run trainings? To grow sales? Why do I end up in positions of authority despite being the least-knowledgable (and never the smartest) person in the room?
Because it’s not about me.
Influence Starts with Empathy
In the beginning of my career, I was pretty certain most people I worked for “didn’t get it.” Never mind I was new in business with 20+ fewer years of experience than they had. I was pretty sure of myself. If only they understood me, I could fix things. If only.
A Lesson in Self-Awareness
The status quo was never good enough, in my high-minded approach to the world. So whatever task was assigned to me, my typical MO was to tear it down and design a new one. Sometimes this out-of-the-box attitude earned me praise, often it didn’t.
There’s the whole matter of being wrong, of course. It happened early and often. And when I was wrong, my ideas were rightfully ignored. Though that didn’t stop me from going home and stewing about it. (Just ask my wife.)
Then there’s the issue of being right, without having the authority or responsibility to make the change I envisioned. When those things rest with other people, boy howdy, I didn’t just stew. I’d cause a ruckus. Yes, I was a punk. When I was sure I was right, I also thought the world was going to end because no one would listen to me. It was intolerable. The fools!
That kind of frustration was a major factor in deciding to start and run my own businesses. And while independence benefited my ego, it also forced me to learn faster. A lot faster. I couldn’t go home and stew about anyone. Without a boss to blame, there were only clients. I couldn’t rationally blame clients (though I did).
Why in the world don’t people do what’s best for them? Since I obviously have the best ideas about what that is, why don’t they listen to me?
They Didn’t Listen to Me, Because I Didn’t Listen to Them
I should have known better. I was a trained counselor, after all. I had taught group facilitation. While I had the skills to listen effectively, I hadn’t truly internalized the importance of doing so.
Yes, I could read a prospect’s cues or my manager’s frustration. But rather than dig into those feelings, I reacted to them like landmines to avoid– problems to overcome. My ego wanted the win, so I’d push, hoping the underlying objections or misunderstandings would melt away, like they always do in magical sales trainings that get to a yes. And when they didn’t, I blamed the other person, because they were probably being stupid.
Well of course they weren’t. I was. I might have been listening, but I wasn’t really hearing what they said, or what they needed. That was my fault. I was pushing my agenda, not constructing solutions.
Getting Over Myself
No one wakes up in the morning wondering how to please a stranger they have yet to meet. We just don’t put a lot of energy into how other people feel. Even if you are trying to do good in the world, you likely have an agenda. You want an outcome. I sure did. And I pushed for my agenda. Hard.
What I learned, however, was that I couldn’t possibly know what’s best for the person I was talking to. My ego wanted agreement. My ego wanted to help. My ego drove me to get my way.
I did get my way with regularity, performing well in sales, sometimes very well. I was good at winning arguments, but I also had my failures, and they stuck with me, probably too much. I let my ego get hurt. To do better, I had to be better. I had to get over myself.
The Discipline of Discovery
About 15 years ago, I was introduced to the idea of buyer-centered selling. I started letting go of what I wanted, and learning how to forget about my own goals in favor of my prospect’s goals. I stopped caring about winning or losing the sale, and focused intently on learning– about the other person, their viewpoint, their priorities, their worries…
My performance wasn’t the point. My goals took a back seat. When I could put myself in the other person’s perspective, and they knew I could, everything changed.
As one of my trainers would say, “He who learns the most, wins.”
This isn’t just true in sales. It’s also vitally important in managing people effectively, discovering what your customers truly want, and designing new solutions that are meaningful to them and easy to use. As you might expect, I’m a huge advocate of “human-centered design.”
Discovering more than others do is a powerful advantage, not just because it ensures you make decisions based on fact, but because the people you serve, want your help.
We are Wired for Socially Constructive Behavior