Under the Influence: The Powers and Limitations of Convincing Others

Updated: May 4


Have you ever strategized about how to convince someone of something, say, how to proceed with a certain project at work? Or, worried that someone you thought didn't like you might try to convince others not to like you? I continually hear this concern around influence--that you either need to figure out a way to influence others in your favor, or you're worried someone might try to influence others against you.


Allow me to deflate that balloon of worry. Influence isn't some immense power that everyone carries around; it's actually a very limited tool that is really difficult to use effectively. And you should feel comfort in knowing these three truths about influence.


1) Proximity does not necessarily increase influence

It would stand to reason that an off-handed comment on a message board wouldn't be as influential to your thinking as your spouse. And it's true that those closest to you influence you in a variety of ways, from the car you want to drive to the job you want to have. But when it comes to convincing others, proximity isn't as powerful as you might think.


My parents and I have long struggled to share recommendations on movies, TV shows, and books. It's almost pathological. The more I emphatically recommend something because it deeply affected me, the less likely they are to like it. These people gave me their genetic codes, raised me for 18 years, and continue to emotionally support me, but I cannot for the life of me get them to understand my appreciation of Dave Chappelle or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.


And this is infuriating because I argue that my taste, preferences and standards came, in large part, from their loving parenting and influence. Which is to say, if I'm drawn to this particular book, it is because of them. So why the hell don't they like it, too?


Because that's just not how influence works. You would think the easiest person in the world I could get to do as I say, and think what I think, and behave how I behave is, well, those closest to me. But no. My parents can't successfully get me to watch Game of Thrones any more than I can get my kids not to leave their shoes in the middle of the floor. So, if you were ever worried that the coworker you think hates you might try to get her closest work friend to hate you, too--well, she's got a steeper hill to climb than I do trying to talk my parents into any comedy special that may contain foul language.


2) Fans are far more influential than critics

The funny thing about critics is that they know everything the fans believe. Take for example, an artist. If you don't like a musician, I bet you are very aware of all the praise the musician receives. You may even work to seek out information about what the fans are saying, only to steer harder into your opposition.


I have long been a (massive) fan of Tina Fey. She did an appearance a few years back on the Weekend Update for Saturday Night Live in response to the protesting in Charlottesville. In that bit, she coined the concept, "Sheet-caking," which was to buy a sheet cake and eat it anytime the disappointment of society, and the people in it, got to you. I found the content clever and her delivery something to admire, and I still use the subsequent gif of Tina downing a sheet cake with impressive regularity.


I recently read an interview where she talked about how much backlash she got for that skit, and even admitted she didn't get it exactly right. She said she should have pushed more for thought and action, instead of suggesting we can solve the world's ills by eating cake. That there was any backlash was a surprise to me. So I went to find all the other articles that referenced her "mess up" and it occurred to me only then that fans don't always know what critics think, but critics always know what fans think. Which is to say, those who support you don't go around seeking out ways to invalidate their feelings. They are on your side and plan to stay there. In fact, I've never been influenced by any critic to stop being a fan. And the only person who ever convinced me to stop being a fan of a celebrity was, well, the celebrity. And Tina hasn't done that yet.


3) How influence is given is rarely how it is received

What we intend to impress upon people is almost never what sticks. The lessons we hope to teach our kids aren't the ones they grow up holding on to, and yet the unintentional lessons--good and bad--can last forever. This isn't to suggest that we aren't influential, or that our efforts are for naught. But it is to say that your intention can't be in the outcome; it must stay with the process.


For me, the difference came when I switched my question about a keynote I was going to give from, "What do they want to hear?" to "What do I want say?" When I began focusing on myself, my thoughts, and my delivery, I was effectively controlling the only controllable part of any moment on stage.


This lesson crystalized for me as an educator. Very, very rarely has a student contacted me after our time in the classroom to tell me how much I influenced them on the subject of the class. It's not that they didn't learn or appreciate the content of the course; that's just not what tends to stand out as the most influential part of our interaction. Meaning, the very thing I'm there to deliver is not the biggest thing they carry away.


I once had a student who I had all but forgotten because we didn't particularly gel during his time in my class, nor did he really ever seek me out for any additional help or advice. But two years after he graduated he stopped by to thank me for being a steady and positive presence during (what I had no idea was) a tough period in his life.


The reverse is that I once stayed after class with a student who was struggling with a work dilemma. Essentially, he didn't know if he should quit his job, or stick it out since he hadn't even been there six months. I sat with him for an hour as he talked through his concerns. At the very end of our conversation I said: "Just remember, you're in control of your life, and you need to do what's best for you." A few months later he stopped by my office to tell me the night we spoke after class he called his parents to say he was going to quit his job the next day, because his professor had said that's what he should do. Where I thought I was telling him he had lots of options, he heard there was only one.


It's like that old adage all writers learn the hard way: All you can do is write the book; you can't tell anyone how to read it.


Just think about a time when someone purposely tried to influence you for or against something. I'd just bet it didn't work. I'm most influenced by those who aren't seeking to influence me. And I'm more likely to listen to those who aren't trying to tell me how important it is to listen to them. And those who have had the most profound impact on my life would probably be surprised to hear about it.


Which means, you are most likely to influence others when being influential is the last thing on your mind.



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