The ability to exercise influence is one of the most impactful tools in a lawyer’s toolkit, but how to get it and use it is not well understood.
We all recognize influential people when we see them, but it isn’t often that we stop to think about how those people became influential, the positive impact that their having developed their capacity for influence has had on their lives — and more broadly in the world — and how we can do the same in our own lives.
So, today, we are going to unpack influence and identify some tools and ideas that can be used to help you become more conscious and intentional about cultivating and enhancing your own influence in the hopes that you will then put that influence to work as you get up to great things in your practice and your life.
What is influence?
There are many ways to define influence, but for our purposes a good basic definition is that influence is the capacity to have a material impact on another person’s thoughts, beliefs and actions. People with influence are leaders: They inspire and motivate others into positive action.
Why do we want it?
People who successfully hone their influence:
• Experience an increase in their personal magnetism;
• Enjoy stronger, more loyal relationships;
• Increase their ability to positively impact their worlds and the people around them;
• Have more satisfying interactions with people around them;
• Get more of the kinds of clients and work they want;
• Become leaders in their personal and professional communities.
How do we get it? The art and science of influence
You can learn to exercise influence, but it takes work.
The “science” of exercising influence lies in the action you take: what you do that contributes to your ability to influence people. This includes the behavior you model, the use and application you make of your education and the things you are trained to do, how you conduct yourself in your life and your profession, how you deploy persuasion techniques you have learned, etc.
But influence goes beyond personal and professional skills and competencies.
The most important aspect of cultivating and exercising influence lies in the “art” of it, which is more about who you are than it is about what you do.
Many internationally recognized business and leadership experts have written about what you need to be in order to cultivate and exercise influence.
What the experts say about cultivating influence
John Maxwell, an internationally recognized expert on leadership, equates influence with leadership and identifies seven factors that are shared by great influencers and leaders:
1. Character — who they are on the inside;
2. Relationships — they cultivate loyal, meaningful relationships with the right people in the context of their objectives;
3. Knowledge — they seek knowledge before they seek to influence;
4. Intuition — what they feel;
5. Experience — where they have been;
6. Past success — what they have done;
7. Ability — what they can do.
In her book Presence, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy advances the proposition that people assess you on two main criteria when they first meet you:
1. Can I trust this person?
2. Can I respect this person?
She says your level of trustworthiness, which she characterizes as warmth, is the most important factor in how people initially perceive you and that while displaying competence is certainly beneficial, focusing on winning people's respect, while failing to win their trust, can backfire.
"If someone you're trying to influence doesn't trust you, you're not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative," Cuddy says. "… only after you've established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat."
In his book The Art of Influence, Chris Widener sets out four pillars of influence that he calls the Golden Rules of Influence:
1. Integrity — Integrity in one person breeds trust in others. In keeping with Cuddy’s theory, Widener also believes that trust is the primary factor in whether or not you will have influence.
2. Positivity — People want to be around positive people. People who are positive regardless of circumstances are more influential.
3. Service — Having a genuine service mindset is key to engendering loyalty from those around you. People can feel it when you consider other peoples’ interests before, more important than or in greater priority than you consider your own. Because a genuine service mindset is rare, it is extremely compelling and results in those who have it enjoying greater influence.
4. Excellence — Excellence attracts. Excellence in one field has a halo effect that carries over into other fields; it attracts and breeds respect for whatever you do. People look to those who have succeeded in one field for advice and leadership in many fields.
A note to distinguish influence, persuasion and manipulation
Influence, persuasion and manipulation are sometimes conflated or confused in people’s minds. While all do share the objective of making a change in a person’s behaviour or attitude, there are very important differences.
Persuasion is the art of altering behaviour through words, argument, reasoning and other communication techniques. Having influence helps one to be persuasive, but persuasion can also be employed by someone who does not have influence.
Manipulation is distinguished by intention. It implies persuasion with the intent to fool, control or trick someone into doing something that is in the interest of the manipulator, and it leaves the manipulated person either with no benefit or detrimentally impacted.
The distinguishing feature of influence is that it is exercised through the charisma and personality of the influencer. It works silently, without the need for verbal communication. The influencer is perceived positively in the mind of the person being influenced and that perception inspires them into some kind of positive action.
Most people who have become lawyers went into this profession because they aspired to contribute, help and make a positive impact on the world. Influence is one of the keys to making that kind of impact. Regardless of which route to influence resonates with you — those described above, those described by others or one you create for yourself — investing some time and attention on cultivating and strengthening the traits that will result in your having greater influence in your communities will not only contribute to your professional success, it will also lead to greater fulfilment in all aspects of your life.