Genuine Connection is the Secret to Powerful Influence

By Ron Carucci

Tuesday, April 25th 2017

Leaders. Sales people. Parents. Coaches. Consultants. Marketers. Therapists. Inventors. Entrepreneurs. There are few roles in life that don’t require an ongoing influence of other people. Getting others to reach higher performance levels. Behave in a new way. Buy something you’re selling. Change their approach. Invest in your idea. Adopt your solution. Regardless of what you do, chances are you have to exert influence on someone else to accomplish what’s expected of you. 

The problem is most of us become naturally resistant when we sense others trying to “change” us. We feel manipulated. We distrust their motives. We fear being taken advantage of. And we don’t want the comfort of our routine disrupted. 

There are some people who just have a knack for penetrating even the hardest of human exteriors and convincing people to get past what’s familiar and do the unimaginable. Regardless of their profession, they all have one powerful thing in common. The way they connect. Known formally as “attachment,” the ways they construct genuine relationships with those they want to influence melts away natural defenses and opens others to possibility, new ideas, and ultimately, commitment to change. 

Attachment happens at the deepest psychological levels. The degree of our capacity for it is shaped by our earliest bonding with our parents. It’s not an interpersonal skill mastered through polished technique. Your approach to relationships is a reflection of your innate psychological imprint, and in unhealthy forms, perhaps unaddressed psychopathology. Those who attach in healthy, truly masterful ways that have lasting influence, consistently display these six characteristics. I’ve intentionally included the “dark sides” of each to help distinguish how they can be used with ill intent, or in emotionally harmful ways.

1. They are vulnerable without manipulating intimacy. Self-disclosure is one of the fastest ways to break down walls and earn the trust of others. A willingness to share appropriate personal details lets others see more of who we are. It conveys a type of risk that invites reciprocity. In an organizational setting, shedding the professional veneer that masks the more human parts of ourselves, helps others feel less suspicious or guarded. It invites them to be at ease, and therefore more open to what we have to say. The degree of vulnerability you need to employ to build attachment is commensurate with the degree of risk you are asking of others, and in what time frame. For example, if you are asking your team to dramatically increase their performance levels in a shortened period of time, being honest about your own fears of failure, or your personal need to stretch to meet the goal can raise their confidence to join you in the leap of faith.

But vulnerability becomes dangerous when it is used to manipulate others to draw close. Sharing personal stories of tragedy to provoke sympathy or exaggerated self-doubt to summon reassurance eventually backfires. People soon realize your self-disclosure is a calculated attempt to engineer a particular reaction from them, destroying the very trust you sought to build.

2. They are curious without ignoring boundaries. Having invited some degree of trust using vulnerability, you can increase attachment by inviting others to open up. Being curious about their story, asking pertinent questions that offer a window into their worldview, struggles, and hopes should provoke true fascination. Great connectors are genuinely awed by what others have to say.  They gently probe into areas that seem important to others, and are gracious in how they receive the information. They ask questions that honor the story teller’s generosity to share, and paraphrase back to indicate they’ve understood. The critical focus is on pursuing what seems important to them. If you are guiding the conversation during a complex sale, drawing out the felt needs of your prospective buyer is a way to enhance trust. People feel less risk when exploring a substantial investment when they feel heard and understood.

But if you isolate details of what you hear just to fit your pitch, you will alienate your prospect. That’s because curiosity becomes intrusive when it takes on an agenda. When you start asking questions in clear pursuit of your own interests, looking for ways to connect others’ self-reflections to your cause, you have crossed a boundary. People feel honored when others are drawn to their story, especially the parts most meaningful to them. But they feel exploited when that story is picked apart by another’s self-interest.

3. They are empathetic without having to rescue. The ability to express care for others is core to relationships of enduring influence. Relating to elements of struggle, legitimizing others’ hard-to-admit anxieties, and expressing tender sorrow for others’ pain, are key to leveling the playing field in a relationship. Mutuality is best established through common suffering. Change begins when people can take ownership of their difficult circumstances, harnessing insights that can help them learn and move forward.

But empathy goes dark the minute it’s used to rescue others. Those we are influencing are often in predicaments, at least in part, of their own making. Peppered into their struggle are feelings of shame, guilt, and regret. Ineffective leaders can’t resist the impulse to absolve people of their own contributions with remarks like, “That wasn’t your fault” or “That’s water under the bridge” or “How could you have known?” Worse, they hijack the focus back to their own struggle with one-up comparisons. “That’s not as bad as what I did…” responses, intended to sound empathic, are actually dismissive of other’s pain. Rescuing others from their struggles dangerously short-circuits the opportunity for them to learn and grow through them. 

4. They offer delight without idolizing.  Fewer social experiences are more gratifying than knowing we’ve been enjoyed by others. Great connectors show their delight in others. Like the amazing hospitality of a gracious host, great connectors make others feel delighted in, welcomed, and special. They create an undeniable warmth that dignifies others, signaling their presence is fondly appreciated. They offer sincere and deserved compliments, white-glove hospitality, and the esteem one would grant a special guest. In the company of such connectors, you hear others say things like, “They just makes me feel so good…like I’m royalty”.

But that delight turns ugly when it’s faked. We all know how it feels watching someone pretending to laugh at an unfunny joke to cozy up to the joke teller. We can sense when a compliment has been exaggerated past honesty. Feigned enjoyment has a clear motive to suck up, and though it can work on some with gargantuan egos, more often it lethally backfires.   

5. They display courage that doesn’t demand adoration.  Exceptional connectors never pull their punches. They respectfully tell the truth to others even when that truth might be hard to hear. They resist the temptation to self-protect or avoid conflict and speak up when the obvious “undiscussables” need to be addressed. Consultants are often required to name particular issues about their clients that risk being disruptive to the relationship. But the truth is, such honesty strengthens relationships. Great connectors have the courage to say things like, “Jim, the way you handled that situation during the meeting was really inappropriate. I know you probably intended to be helpful, but your harsh tone and language likely left people feeling judged and defensive. Let’s talk about what needs to happen now.”  And while Jim might feel defensive, it’s highly probable he already knows things didn’t go well and recognizes it takes a real ally to broach it.

Such relational courage is diluted when offered with subtle tones of superiority. Excessive bravura can make others feel beholden to return admiration. Expressions of gratitude that sound like, “Wow, nobody has ever been that honest with me before,” or “I’m just so amazed at how you call it like you see it without feeling any reluctance,” should not feel good, but signal concern that you’ve drawn the attention of your client to your behavior, and away from their own.

6. They offer wisdom without emotionally detaching.  When influencing others, it’s reasonable to assume that part of our credibility rests on some degree of knowledge or expertise about the particular issue at hand. Offering success stories of others’ who’ve navigated similar challenges, insights about what does or doesn’t work, and advice that is contextualized to your listener’s situation helps build confidence that your influence is reliable. But the wisdom must ride on the back of the emotional connections discussed in the previous five characteristics, because commitments to change are ultimately made from an emotional place, not an intellectual one.

Wisdom is highly diluted when offered as a surrogate for connection rather than an enhancer of it.  Such experts can come across as aloof, even cold. And though they may appear impressively smart, the absence of an emotional connection makes it difficult for listeners to completely trust the wisdom is being accompanied by a personal investment in their wellbeing. Wisdom absent emotional connection is relegated to merely “good suggestions.”

Building relationships of enduring influence takes hard, emotional work. That starts with ourselves. The capacity to embody these six characteristics requires deep examination of our emotional and relational health. If you’ve chosen work that requires exerting ongoing impact on others, do the needed work to ensure you are sufficiently connecting with those you most want to influence.


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