How to improve your influencing skills

Much of leadership is about influencing other people’s behaviour. But how do you do it most effectively? My thanks go to my client, Pascal Feidt from Syngenta, who contributed much of the material for this month’s article.

Since 2009, Pascal has held commercial responsibilities in Africa and the Middle East for Syngenta. In 2011, he was appointed Crop Head for the combined vegetables, seeds and crop protection business. Prior to this, he held various positions within the company in the area of Portfolio Management, Financial Controlling and Mergers & Acquisitions. Pascal started his career as a financial analyst and holds a Master’s Degree in Finance after having studied at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and the London School of Economics.

How to improve your influencing skills

What does influencing mean?

Influencing is the ‘capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself’.

As you know, many of the skills we need include the ability to be flexible in our approach depending on the situation – and this also applies to influencing. It’s insufficient to have just one way of influencing. More, you need access to a range of styles, as well as the ability to recognise which style to use at the time.

An influencing model

Influencing can be split into two broad categories – push and pull.

A push style is recognised as more assertive and directive, for example: “I propose we do… because…” This style works well when a decision using a fact-based approach is required, or when there is ambiguity – providing facts gives clarity and reassurance. You may also use this in a crisis situation where a fast and decisive response is required.

Start with your proposal or recommendation. Then, follow with one to three reasons to support your argument.

Top Tip:
Be concise. Never have more than three reasons to support your proposal, or you will lose the impact of your argument. Putting it bluntly: Speak concisely and shut up nicely!”

A pull style is softer and uses emotions more than logic, for example: “Tell me more about…” or “What thoughts do you have about…” or “What I think I heard is…” This style works well when you are trying to build or maintain a relationship; when you have little positional power (see below) or you don’t want to use your position to distort; and when you need to gain the insight and creativity of others to generate the best outcome.

Start with listening and asking questions to understand the thoughts of others. Then use this to bridge or build together different perspectives, including your own, to create an aligned view.

Building rapport with others is an extremely effective skill to learn, and is particularly powerful when using a pull style. By initially following the lead and style of others you will create a trusting environment that will allow ideas to flow; if need be, you can then slowly start to lead and shift the style to what you believe is the most effective way to achieve the objectives of the discussion. (Think of it as pace, pace, pace, then lead). A fun way to see if people are in rapport is to observe their body language – if it is the same, the chances are they are!

Top Tip:
Ask questions and listen with a truly open mind (filter out your own view for a moment). Bridge the views of others in the room with your thoughts, so the picture builds using the diversity of opinions.

Pascal’s advice:
“We have all been to meetings with unexpected outcomes; the project made sense, none of the participants were seen as being strong opponents, yet despite this, the presenter failed to gain approval. In quite a few of these cases, I felt that the style used by the presenter was driven by his confidence in the proposal, rather than by the needs and expectations of the audience! In our daily life we unconsciously use a mix of styles, leaning at times more toward push or pull. I felt it very useful to practice conveying the same message using clearly distinct styles, push or pull, and observe reactions. In real conversations, consciously modulating my style mix gives me an extra way of seeking feedback from the audience.”

As is the case with many things in life, timing is everything! Therefore if the mood is tense or people are stuck/tired – pause the discussion. The ability to politely get out of an unhelpful discussion or one that’s heading towards being destructive is a powerful influencing technique, but it may not be an obvious one.

Top Tip:
Call a break to help everyone regain perspective. It elevates the debate and encourages people to focus on solutions.  But don’t make the mistake of avoiding the discussion, unless this is a conscious decision and you communicate this.

Two types of power

As well as deciding which influence style to use in any given situation you should also decide which type of power to use – either your power based on your position or power based on your style. Aim to balance your personal objectives with the need to maintain and build relationships. As you can see from the seesaw diagram, when you gain one, you may lose the other.

1. Positional power
This directly derives from your status in the organisation, so it’s hierarchical and downward-focused. As a ‘given’, it doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader.

When you use your positional power, there is a risk that you might force something through to meet your objectives. You may need to use your positional power sometimes – say in a crisis – but be aware that there may be some collateral damage to the relationship. Therefore, you should use it carefully, wisely, and only when you have no other option.

Also, be respectful that this is not something that subordinates can use with you.

2. Personal power
This is multi-lateral power that derives from your own abilities. It takes skill and thought, and is more likely to bring people with you. When you use your personal power, you can both meet your personal objectives AND maintain your relationships.


Pascal concludes:
“Syngenta foster a collaborative environment; being empathetic and engaging with people, their beliefs and emotions is one of the four attributes of our leadership model. When developing my influencing skills, being video-taped helped me learn that most of my contributions were too long, diluting my arguments and inhibiting a true disclosure of my intention vis-à-vis the other person. I now put active listening at the heart of my interactions – that is, genuinely being able to hear what the other person is saying and summarising it. I consciously work on it as my most important ally in starting to bridge to someone else.”

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like help to improve your influencing skills.

The next issue will be in September, when we look at how to use body language to create rapport.