Influencing with empathy

Influencing with empathy

One of the difficult aspects of being in charge of people is actually getting them to do something that they really don't want to do.

March 16, 2022


One of the difficult aspects of being in charge of people is actually getting them to do stuff that they don't want to do. Most leaders, it's fair to say, probably still labour under the misapprehension that once you've told somebody to do something, they'll just go right ahead and do it, just like you asked. In the last 50 years, society, and what we consider to be normal behaviour from our leaders, has changed enormously. Even back in 1982 when I joined the army it was made very plain to us cadets that you couldn't just go around bossing people about; you actually had to win them over, even if you were nominally in charge, if you really wanted them to get cracking on something - especially if it was going to be something difficult, dirty, tiring or cold.


An illusion that is still more broadly shared amongst us all is that if at first you don't succeed, you should try and try again. In other words if I tell you to do something and you don't do it the first time, I should just keep repeating myself in the certain knowledge that eventually you will do as you're being asked. Of course we all know this is a nonsense as well… and we keep doing it.


So here is a much healthier alternative: empathy. Every time I explain this I do marvel at the counterintuitive nature of the listening-to-influence proposition. So let me explain how this listening business can be such a powerful tool in winning people over to your point of view. To save you reading the book, here it is in bullet points.


~ People will listen to us once we have listened properly to them.

~ To prove that we have heard somebody we must replay to them the feeling and the fact that they are trying to get across to us. e.g. You sound worried about having a go at this.

~ When we reflect back what somebody seems to be thinking and feeling they have an opportunity to hear themselves and to re-examine their own beliefs.

~ Persuading people is really about getting them to revisit the reason why they don't want to do something.

~ Empathic listening is the shortcut to getting people to accept that changing their minds might be a good idea. They have to do that piece of persuasion work for themselves - we can only help them with it from the fringes.

~ Once people have had a chance to reappraise their own position they will send us a signal that they are ready to listen to us, to really understand why we're pushing our view. And that's the moment to very briefly, and I mean briefly, explain why we want something so much, why it's important, why it's going to work.


So that, hopefully, is sufficient explanation to prompt you to abandon clever argumentation in favour of empathic listening when you are next having to persuade somebody to change their mind.

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