(Forbes first published my article here.)
Business circles are buzzing often these days about influence. Who has it? Who lacks it? Why people need it? Often, the conversations sound as if influence were a commodity you could buy at the local store or install on your laptop. Although it’s not that easy, people have more influence than they realize. They simply fail to recognize opportunities to exercise it.
Far too many people “walk in the shadows” so to speak. That is, they think they can’t influence others without having a better education, a bigger title, a more prestigious position, a longer list of accomplishments, better connections.
Yes, all of those things might help you sway staffers, colleagues, clients, voters, or neighbors. Yes, some are more important than others to build a case on a specific subject. For example, if you’re talking about brain surgery, your educational background carries weight. But none of these specific characteristics is essential.
Sometimes a child’s innocent question can influence a head of state to change a policy. The results of a college student’s research study may change the health habits of a nation. A poignant novel or movie scene may spark a national movement. In each of these cases, the result is the final measure of influence—not the rank of the idea’s originator.
So what is essential to being a person of influence?
People balk at listening to opinions from those who don’t “walk their talk.” They want to know that what you do matches who you are. Of course, people make mistakes and misjudgments. No one is perfect. But discovering a fundamental disconnect between the image someone projects in public and their actual habits and lifestyle in private jars onlookers.
That disconnect destroys trust. That deception leads them to reject the total picture about the person: their ideas, their opinions, their accomplishments.
On the other hand, we come to trust the person of integrity. If they promise to show up, they show up. If they join, they participate. If they pledge money, they give it. If they say they’ll do something, they do it. If they state publicly that they believe in X, they practice X privately.
They live their life in the open. Inspection does not frighten them. People have learned to count on them for saying what they believe and believing what they say.
People of influence listen with an open mind. They can understand another person’s point of view. They may disagree with another person’s viewpoints and opinions. But they can understand “where the other person is coming from,” so to speak. That quality gives them perspective and allows them to identify with the other person’s needs and goals.
People are much more likely to be swayed by those who can “feel what they feel” and who have their interests in mind. Voltaire had it right when he observed, “The ear is the avenue to the heart.”
Your ideas and opinions don’t count for much if you don’t have the courage to speak up. You have to take the opportunity to show up when and where it matters. You have to do your homework and gather the facts to build your case. You have to listen to other people so you can present your case in an empathetic way that helps others meet their long-term goals.
Or the reverse: You may need to challenge an idea, an action, or a cause that you don’t believe is right. That challenge may take even more courage because you may be going against a strong current coming against you.
As the old maxim goes, people can’t read your mind. They need to see your backbone, hear your voice, read your words.
Of course, persuasion involves more than just these traits. In fact, my book What MORE Can I Say? offers nine practical persuasion strategies. But these 3 traits—consistency, empathy, and courage—form the foundation for becoming a person of influence.
For more tips on how to expand your influence check out
What MORE Can I Say? Why Communication Fails and What to Do About It.