by Don Morley

Use your communication skills

There are certain aspects of communication which are absolutely essential to achieving positive influence.


Communication skills are often thought of in terms of what you say and how you say it, but to be in communication with someone is a two-way process: the use of the ears is just as important as what comes out of the mouth.

Building rapport is an important building block on the way to successful influence. The dictionary describes rapport as being ‘in agreement with’. How can you know whether you are in agreement if one party does the majority of the talking, without seeking the views of the other party?

It is not simply about listening, of course. Indeed, those who frequently comment ‘I hear what you say’ may be going through the motions, rather than paying genuine attention. While you are speaking, most of their concentration is going into thinking what point they will make next. This is particularly true of the competitive type who believes that influence is something to do with intellect and that it is a matter of scoring more points than the other.

The main purpose of listening is to gain complete understanding of the message being conveyed. The only way to ensure this is to ask questions – if you want to be a better listener, ask better questions.

Asking better questions

To influence effectively, you need to first understand before seeking to be understood. If you think this is a waste of time, consider the following. You go to the head of IT with a detailed proposal for a new system which will reduce headcount by ten and simultaneously improve response times to customers. What is more, you have already run it past the two other function heads that it affects and they are keen to see it happen. Yet the meeting with your IT colleague goes badly. In fact, three months later you are still trying to get a firm date from him as to implementation.

The outcome might have been different had you ascertained, at the initial discussion, that he had just lost one of his best people and was in the middle of determining how he would be able to complete a major project before the company’s year-end. The last thing he needed was another project, regardless of its commercial justification. This lack of consideration for the other person’s situation creates hostility and delay. Choose your time carefully, if you aim to achieve influence at the first attempt.

Clarifying/probing questions

Many people tend to generalise instead of coming straight out with what they really think. They may drop hints and signals, hoping to avoid being explicit beyond their comfort zone. Before you can influence them, you need to establish their real feelings about the subject in question. After all, unless you can allay their fears or modify your own position, you may imagine you have their support when they are embarked on a covert sabotage mission. You need to draw them out with the use of the usual clarifying and probing questions.

Check out the meaning of those vague or imprecise statements. For example, ‘When you said you were too busy at present, what did you mean exactly?’ ‘Can you put a number on the likely extra man days that amendment would entail, Chris?’ might help to clarify attitudes and facts.

Paraphrasing, reflecting and summarising

Paraphrasing is repeating back what the speaker has said, using different words and often following with an agreement statement. For example, ‘So you’re saying the regional sales report has to take priority – is that right?’ This can help to clarify your own understanding.

Reflecting feelings, emotions or attitudes helps to establish rapport and empathy. Typically this is done by making a statement, posed as a question, with the use of tone. For example, ‘You look concerned about that idea, Jane?’

Summarising is a good way to make sure you understand the issues so far in a conversation, particularly if it has been a long one. It is done by picking out the main points of what has been said and repeating them. The golden rule is not to add your own embellishments or interpretation. Double check your summary with, ‘Have I got that right?’ This demonstrates a desire to establish common ground.

Additionally, don’t forget the use of open and closed (answer yes or no) questions. One type is no better or worse than the other; it just depends on the situation you are in and what type of information you are seeking.

Some final thoughts

Avoid leading questions, such as, ‘I assume I am correct in thinking that no one has any significant issue with what is proposed?’ This type of question makes it doubly difficult for any waverer to raise doubts. People feel railroaded by leading questions – a ‘push’ not ‘pull’ strategy.

When probing, your line of questioning needs to avoid giving the impression of interrogation. The advocacy and enquiry technique is useful here. Preface your question with the reason for your enquiry along theses lines: ‘I might be able to adjust the schedule if you could be more specific about why the timing is a problem for you.’

The use of silence can be powerful. Not threatening silence, but suitable pauses to allow the other party to not only consider your words but also to ask questions of their own in order to satisfy their concerns.

Finally, the richness of the conversation will reflect how well engaged both parties are. Eye contact, body language and encouraging nods and murmurs of agreement all contribute enormously to good communication and successful influence. There used to be a song whose lyrics went like this:

It’s not what you do; it’s the way that you do it

If you add:

It’s not what you say, but the way that you say it

you will be in good shape to influence.

Also have a look at the topics on Listening Skills, Questioning Skills, Body Language and Rapport.