The First Law of Influence

Influence attempts may fail for many legitimate reasons

Some books claim that if you follow their principles you can influence anyone to do anything.  According to these authors, you can get anyone to like you, love you, and find you irresistibly attractive.  Wow!  They assert that you can take control of any situation, win at every competition, and gain the upper hand every time.  One book, written for men wanting to pick up women, boasts that by following its mystery methods you can get beautiful women into bed.  Another boldly proclaims that you can get anyone to say yes in eight minutes or less.  When I read claims like these I am reminded of a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln:  “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

The idea that you can influence anyone to do anything is nonsense.  There are many reasons why people may not be moved by or even be aware of your influence attempt.  In his book What Leaders Really Do, John Kotter explores why people may not respond to a manager’s influence attempts:  “Some people may be uncooperative because they are too busy elsewhere, and some because they are not really capable of helping.  Others may well have goals, values, and beliefs that are quite different and in conflict with the manager’s and may therefore have no desire whatsoever to help or cooperate.”  Additionally, the people you are trying to influence may not care about what you want them to support.  They may disagree with your opinion, idea, suggestion, proposal, or point of view.  They may not need what you are selling, or accept your line of reasoning, or be inspired by what you are saying.  Or they may be distracted.  Or they may not have enough regard for you or your team or company to pay attention to your message.

Consider this: In business, salespeople spend more time studying and practicing the techniques of influence than any other group in a company, and even the very best of them cannot sell their products or services to every customer all the time.  Why?  Because as skilled and influential as they may be, there are many valid reasons why they cannot and will not persuade some customers—and those reasons often have more to do with the customers and the situation than with the salespeople.  In the real world, many factors affect a buying decision, and even skilled salespeople may not be aware of or be able to change factors that lead buyers to choose another provider or buy nothing at all.

As the First Law of Influence implies, you will not be able to influence everyone all the time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t influence many people most of the time if you have enough power and use the right influence techniques.  Leadership skill and the ability to influence others effectively have become increasingly important not only in business and government but in all walks of life, and influence is now being taught—in some form—in many educational institutions.  Masters in Public Administration and MBA degrees, for instance, now feature these skills prominently in the curriculum. 

(excerpted from Terry R. Bacon, Elements of Influence:  The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead, AMACOM Books, 2011)

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