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

When two people achieve understanding, their natural inclination is to help each other. It’s what makes the human race operate as a species. We solve problems together. We build things together. If given the chance, we want to be constructive, so long as fear and resistance aren’t running the show.

You see this in young children who naturally assume any other child is a potential playmate, and happily collaborate within seconds of meeting each other. Believe it or not, that’s practice for adulthood.

Yeah, I know. Seems naive. Why? Probably because we don’t try to collaborate with strangers. We try to convince and cajole them over to our way of seeing the world. We try to win. We just don’t care enough about their needs, and they don’t care enough about ours. So they resist us as we resist getting to know them. It’s only fair.

Learners Can’t Lose

I don’t worry about talking to strangers. I don’t worry about winning or losing a sale, or designing a solution that customers will like. I’m reasonably sure that if there is a solution to be found, I can find it. And in that process, I gain a trusted partner, who trusts me in return.

By maintaining my “discipline of discovery,” I keep conversations about the person I’m with, which means I’m learning, and improving my effectiveness, no matter what else happens. Some days I’m better than others– some days I’m downright bad at it– but I’m usually trending in the right direction of more asking and listening, less talking.

If this sounds too wimpy for you, maybe it is. Maybe your ego isn’t ready for you to toss it aside in favor of bigger and better outcomes– even ones that might surprise you. 😉


Give Your Attention, Gain Influence

Every time you worry about what you said or how you look– whether you’re right or wrong, or convincing people to see things your way– you’re losing influence. Every thought that keeps you inside your head, weakens your standing. Forget about your performance, because influence isn’t about you.

Influence starts with empathy. You only really achieve empathy when you stay in the other person’s worldview, wondering about it, asking more questions, and observing the answers and reactions until you understand as much as possible.

You’re not after agreement– agreement stops learning in it’s tracks.

You’re not after polish– appearing impressive makes others edit themselves.

You’re not after winning– winning is adversarial, which sets emotional traps for later.

To influence others, your job is not to offer compelling reasons. It’s to occupy your counterpart’s worldview, and understand their reasons as best you can. The more attention you pay to their own needs and how they perceive them, the more influence you will have, not just because they want to help you construct a solution, but because you’ll know enough to do so effectively.