How much do you dominate the conversation? That’s one way of thinking about influence – how much you’re in control of the conversation in your work and in your life. Influence in this sense is governed by four things: positional power, emotion, expertise, and control of the interaction. Do you have all the influence you want – and no doubt deserve?
Influence Has Four Sources
Start with positional power. If you have it, influence becomes a relatively simple proposition. People with power over others tend to talk more, to interrupt more, and to guide the conversation more, by picking the topics, for example.
If you don’t have the positional power in a particular situation, then, expect to talk less, interrupt less, and choose the topics of conversation less. After all, exercising their right to talk more about the subjects they care about is one of the ways that people with positional power demonstrate it.
What do you do if you want to challenge positional authority? Perhaps you have a product, or an idea, or a company you want to sell, and you have the ear of someone who can buy it. How do you get control in that kind of situation?
The second aspect of influence is passion, and using it is one way to counteract positional power, and generally to dominate a conversation.
Passion and Expertise Are Unbeatable Together – Usually
Passion can sweep away authority, when it’s well supported with expertise and the speaker is well prepared. We’ve all witnessed that happen when a young unknown performer disarms and woos the judges, devastating the competition, in one of those talent competitions. The purity and power of the emotion and the expertise of the performance is enough to silence – and enlist – the judges, despite their positional authority. Indeed, the impassioned speech, the plea for clemency, the summation to the jury that brings them to tears and wins the case for the defendant – this is the stuff of Hollywood drama since Hollywood began.
Passion often links with expertise, the third aspect of influence. And indeed, you can dominate the conversation, beating out positional power, if you have both passion and expertise. The diffident expert’s voice is sometimes lost in the clamor of people wanting to be heard. So expertise without passion is not always effective, but if it’s patient, it can be the last person standing in a debate and thereby get its turn.
The danger is that it will get ignored in today’s fast and brash culture of 24/7 communication and information overload. Confidence all too often covers up a lack of expertise, and expertise without confidence can get ignored. It’s the fate of the engineer with average or below average communication skills!
The final aspect of influence is the subtlest of the four, and as such rarely can trump either positional authority, passion, or expertise. But in rare instances, artfully manipulated, I have seen it prevail. What is it? It is the mastery of the dance of human interaction: control of the conversation through body language cues.
Can You Control the Conversation – Effortlessly?
We have very little conscious awareness of this aspect of influence, but we are all participants in it with more or less expertise and effort. We learn at a very early age that conversation is a pas de deux, a game that two (or more) people play that involves breathing, winking, nodding, eye contact, head tilts, hand gestures, and a whole series of subtle non-verbal signals that help both parties communicate with one anther.
Indeed, conversation is much less functional without these non-verbal signals. That’s why phone conversations are nowhere near as satisfying as in-person encounters and why conference calls inevitably involve lots more interruptions, miscues, and cross-talking. We’re not getting the signals we’re used to getting to help us know when the other person is ready to hand the conversational baton on to us, and vice-versa.
Can you manage influence only using this fourth aspect? I have seen it done in certain situations, but the other three aspects will usually trump this one. Nonetheless, I once watched an executive effortlessly dominate a roomful of people who were ostensibly equal – a group of researchers gathered from around the world to discuss the future of IT. Within a few minutes, everyone in the room was unconsciously deferring to this executive, even though he had no positional power, and was not particularly passionate – and certainly not expert – about the subject. His mastery of the subtle signals of conversational cuing was profound, and soon he had everyone dancing to his verbal beat. It was beautiful to watch; he showed complete conversational mastery in action.
Influence, then, is a measure of how much skin the participants have in the game, and control over it, and most of us are unconscious experts at measuring it. To wield it, you need to have the edge in at least one of its four aspects, and preferably more than one.