Two Steps to Gaining Influence by Understanding the Other Person’s Problems

6067396483_c5262226a5_oPeter learns an important lesson from (of all people) a sales rep: The first two steps in influencing people you have no authority over.

Back when I had a job (I’m an independent consultant now), I was the head of an IT department for a large, multi-national heavy equipment manufacturer. In my last year on the job, I had an experience that taught me a great deal about how to influence others.

At the time, my company was in the process of replacing most of our software packages with a single integrated package. We recognized that this job was big enough that we needed a consulting house to help us through the process – which led to a series of meeting between various sales reps and a half dozen people from our organization. Picture a table with the sales rep from some consulting house on one side and, on the other side, our company’s team: the president/CEO with various department heads (including me, of course). It was very much like the picture at the top of the blog: one sales rep against all of us (except there was a table between us…and we weren’t sheep).

How he Made the Sale

The experience that I learned from was with the fourth or fifth sales rep we were meeting with. By this point, each meeting seemed like one more stop in an endless series involving reps who all looked (and sounded) very much alike. But this meeting was different: When our team left the room after this meeting, all of us – every single one of us – were convinced that we had found the right consulting house to work with. We still had (as I remember) two reps to interview but those guys didn’t have a chance: We’d made up our minds.

This result so impressed me that, when I got back my to my office, I sat down and tried to figure out what the sale rep had done that was different from the previous reps we’d interviewed. As I reviewed the meeting, I realized that the first 30 or 45 minutes of this meeting had gone very differently from the previous interviews.

In the previous interviews, the reps had started by telling us about how wonderful their company was. After that, we had peppered the reps with questions.

This last interview didn’t begin that way. Instead, the rep had started the interview by asking us questions. In the first 30 or 45 minutes, we certainly managed to ask him some questions but (somehow) he always turned our questions around so that we ended up doing most of the talking. Only in the last half-hour of the meeting did the rep start talking with us about himself, his company, and what they could do for us.

Of course, by that time, the rep had gathered an enormous amount of information about us. As a result, the dialog he had with us in the last 30 minutes reflected his understanding about what mattered to us, what we considered important, and what we valued.

I don’t know if the sales rep had read it, but he demonstrated the principles from the classic book on influencing others, “Influence Without Authority”  by Cohen and Bradford (they also have a website with some key case studies). Cohen and Bradford describe two of the critical steps in influencing others as:

  • Diagnosing the world of the other person
  • Identifying relevant currencies (theirs, yours)

In retrospect, I realized the sales rep fit this model perfectly. In fact, he had spent the first part of the meeting almost exclusively on performing those two steps.

Step 1: Finding Out About the Other Person

In Learning Tree’s Influence without Authority course we talk about influence as a two way process that leads to a change in attitude or behavior. Certainly, the first part of the interview with the sales rep had gone just one way (from us to the sales rep). But, during the last 30 minutes, the sales rep used the information he had gathered during the first part of the meeting to participate in a two way process with us. Learning Tree’s course also details the critical information that the sales rep had gathered during the first part of our meeting: our attitudes, beliefs, values, and perceptions. As a result, the last 30 minutes of the interview focused on those four things.

The ideal in achieving influence is to understand the other person in their entirety. When you don’t have much time (as that sales rep didn’t), understanding another person in their entirety is a lot to ask.

Fortunately, you don’t always need to know everything about the other person. Often, it’s enough to understand the other person’s problems (and understand them in the same way that the other person does). That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the other person – often what the other person thinks of as an important problem is trivial or easy for you. You may even think that the other person is being foolish to have this problem. Good news: You don’t have to change your mind about any of those things…but you do need to be able to see the issues as the other person does, even while disagreeing.

It turns out that, if you focus on just diagnosing the just the other person’s problems, you can gain a pretty good understanding of those problems in 30 or 40 minutes (or less, as my sales rep story demonstrates). But that’s just the first step: You also have to demonstrate to the other person that you understand their problems.

Step 2: Demonstrating That You Understand

But gaining that understanding is just the first step. If you want to influence others in conversation, in a written document/email, or in a presentation, you must go on to the second step by showing that you understand:

  • Your audience’s problems
  • What your audience thinks is important about these problems
  • What your audience will think is valuable in any solution to these problems

Only after you’ve demonstrated that understanding  can you begin to convince the other person of anything at all. This is obvious when we describe people who don’t take the time to show that they understand or problems (along with the attitudes, beliefs, values, and perceptions we have of those problems). We say things like “They’re living in a fantasy world” or even “They just don’t get it.” Once we’ve dismissed someone with those kinds of statements, they stop having any influence on us at all.

Positioning yourself to influence others, therefore, begins with these two steps.  Instead of talking about how great you are, start by getting the person you’re try to influence to talk about themselves (step 1) so you can learn how they think. Then show the other person that you understand their problems in the same way that they understand them (step 2) by discussing their problems using their values. Only at that point can you start influencing them.

Since I became a consultant in 1997, I’ve had lots of success in getting and keeping clients. Much of the reason that I’ve had that success is because of what I learned from that meeting with that sales rep. I really should have thanked him.

For more, view our 4-day course – Influence Skills: Getting Results Without Direct Authority.

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