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The Third Law of Influence

Influence is often a process rather than an event

In Elements of Influence, I note that you may not be able to influence people the first time and in the first way you approach them.  Influence is often a process rather than an event.  For many reasons, people may not initially be receptive to you the first time you ask for something or try to persuade them of something.  So you can either persist, wait until later and try again, or try another influence technique (e.g., instead of giving them logical reasons for your request try appealing to their values).

One of the key skills in influencing others is being able to read them well enough to know how they are responding to your influence attempt and, if they’re not receptive, whether they might be more receptive later.  Sometimes the cues are obvious.  You try to persuade a man to do something and he says, “I don’t know.  Let me think about it,” signaling that he may be agreeable after giving it more thought.  Or you try to influence a woman to support your position on a topic and she asks for more information, signaling that she doesn’t know enough yet to feel comfortable agreeing with you.  Other times, the cues are not so obvious, or the person appears to agree with you but you sense hesitation or discomfort in his body language or facial expression.

Being able to read people’s reactions and knowing how to follow up is an invaluable skill, and it can take years of interactions with people to develop.  We start learning this skill at birth when we discern how our parents respond to our cries.  We develop the skill further through thousands of interactions with peers in school.  Those of us who are most adept at reading others are highly empathetic and skilled at interpreting nonverbal cues.  They can tell the difference between an intractable “no” and a “no” that really means “maybe later” or “give me time to think about it.”

Whether or not you are highly skilled at reading others, it’s wise to remember that an initial attempt to influence someone may not succeed for a variety of reasons and that influence is often a process rather than an event.  If winning this person over is important to you, then persist, maybe not right away but over time.  Try to understand why they said “no” initially or were not persuaded, and try again later, perhaps with a different argument, more facts, or an approach that appeals to their values.  Try to understand why they said “no,” and switch to another influence technique that they may find more compelling.

One important caveat is not to pester them or persist so much that you create resistance.  If you annoy people, they may say “no” just to thwart you, even if it’s in their best interests to agree or comply with your request.  Resistance can be difficult or impossible to overcome, so if you see someone becoming defensive or irritated, back off and allow them time to return to a more agreeable frame of mind.

Photo credits:  gamble19 @

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The Second Law of Influence

Influence is Contextual

In Elements of Influence, I note that people will not say yes or be influenced unless the situation and environment are conducive to them saying yes.  Agreement is built on the foundations of latitude, interests, and disposition.  By this, I mean that the person you want to influence must have the latitude to say yes, that your request or direction should not be contrary to the person’s interests and values, and that the person must be disposed to say yes to you.


Of these foundations of agreement, latitude is most important.  Is the person able to say yes?  Can the person agree if he or she wants to?Girl looking noncommital

Why wouldn’t people have the latitude to be influenced?  Maybe they don’t have the authority to say yes or the authority to buy whatever you’re selling because of their roles.  Or they may already have committed to another course of action and need to honor that commitment or believe that an authority figure in their life (a parent, teacher, or boss) would not approve.  Or, like offering a cocktail to a recovering alcoholic, you may be asking them to do something they’ve vowed not to.  So a first question to ask yourself is this:  Does this person have the latitude to say yes?

If not, you’re trying to influence the wrong person.  Or this is not the right time (maybe they’ll have more latitude later).  Or maybe this influence attempt with this person will not ever succeed.

Interests and Values

Second, would consenting to your request be aligned with the person’s interests and values?  If not, then the person’s interests would not be well served by going along with you and, in this situation, most people most of the time will not willingly consent to be influenced.

You will meet with resistance if you try to persuade people to do something that is not in their best interests or is inimical to their values or beliefs.  So you need to understand what is important to them and avoid directly confronting their values.  Does this mean that you can never get people to deviate from their values or beliefs, however slightly?  No, but experience shows that you must approach them carefully and must not directly confront, deny, or invalidate their belief system.  You are likely to fail if you try to influence people to deviate from their deeply held values and beliefs and if what you are asking is not in their best interests.

Girl looking skepticalDisposition

Finally, people may not respond to an influence attempt simply because they are not in the right frame of mind.  Some people may not be cooperative because they are distracted, busy, or secretive by nature or profession.  Sometimes, the people you are trying to influence may be uncooperative because they fear you, are suspicious of you, or don’t like who you are or what you represent.  Or they may be prejudiced against you for some reason, and you may never know why.  All these factors can raise their resistance and lower their receptivity.  For people to consent to your influence attempt, they must be disposed to be cooperative.

The Simple Test

An easy way to gauge how responsive someone might be to an influence attempt is to use this simple test:  Ask yourself, Why would this person say yes or no?  Asking this question puts you in the other person’s shoes.  It forces you to see the situation from their perspective.  Assume that you want to ask a friend to donate money to a college scholarship fund, and what you’re asking for would be a sizable donation for her or him.  Why would the person say yes or no?

Reasons she might say yes:

  1. She likes you.
  2. She knows the college scholarship fund is important to you.
  3. She’s an alumnus and the college is important to her.
  4. She hasn’t given much to charity this year and feels guilty about it.
  5. She will do so expecting you to support her favorite charity later.
  6. She’s just come into some extra money and is feeling magnanimous.

Reasons he might say no:

  1. He likes you but has felt some distance growing between you.
  2. He is friendly toward you but really doesn’t consider you a close friend and feels no obligation to support your causes.
  3. He has no particular allegiance to this college.
  4. He doesn’t have the money or is not the charitable sort.
  5. He has already given to charity and doesn’t feel that he can contribute more now.
  6. He is willing to contribute but not the amount you are asking for—and he’s annoyed that you are asking for so much.
  7. He’s already given to the college scholarship fund and doesn’t want to give more.
  8. You did not contribute to his favorite charity when he asked you to, and now he feels no obligation to reciprocate.
  9. He’s received some bad news recently and is not in a giving mood.
  10. He’s worried about losing his job (or already knows he’s going to be laid off) and can’t spare the cash.Girl looking agreeable

This simple test is a useful exercise even though you can’t divine everything in your friend’s mind.  You won’t be aware of all the reasons she might say yes or no, but it’s still useful to try to predict them ahead of time.  It may help you choose the right influence technique and frame your arguments in the right way.  In short, it helps to know what people find persuasive and what they don’t.  It helps to know whether they have the latitude to say yes; and if not, why not.  It helps to know their interests and values, and it helps to know whether they will be in the right frame of mind to cooperate with you.

(excerpted from Terry R. Bacon, Elements of Influence:  The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead, AMACOM Books, 2011)

Photos:  © Mykola Kravchenko |

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The First Law of Influence

Influence attempts may fail for many legitimate reasons

Some books claim that if you follow their principles you can influence anyone to do anything.  According to these authors, you can get anyone to like you, love you, and find you irresistibly attractive.  They assert that you can take control of any situation, win at every competition, and gain the upper hand every time.  One book, written for men wanting to pick up women, boasts that by following its mystery methods you can get beautiful women into bed.  Another boldly proclaims that you can get anyone to say yes in eight minutes or less.  When I read claims like these I am reminded of a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln:  “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”Man holding up one finger and saying no with his facial expression

The idea that you can influence anyone to do anything is nonsense.  There are many reasons why people may not be moved by or even be aware of your influence attempt.  In his book What Leaders Really Do, John Kotter explores why people may not respond to a manager’s influence attempts:  “Some people may be uncooperative because they are too busy elsewhere, and some because they are not really capable of helping.  Others may well have goals, values, and beliefs that are quite different and in conflict with the manager’s and may therefore have no desire whatsoever to help or cooperate.”  Additionally, the people you are trying to influence may not care about what you want them to support.  They may disagree with your opinion, idea, suggestion, proposal, or point of view.  They may not need what you are selling, or accept your line of reasoning, or be inspired by what you are saying.  Or they may be distracted.  Or they may not have enough regard for you or your team or company to pay attention to your message.

Consider this:  In business, salespeople spend more time studying and practicing the techniques of influence than any other group in a company, and even the very best of them cannot sell their products or services to every customer all the time.  Why?  Because as skilled and influential as they may be, there are many valid reasons why they cannot and will not persuade some customers—and those reasons often have more to do with the customers and the situation than with the salespeople.  In the real world, many factors affect a buying decision, and even skilled salespeople may not be aware of or be able to change factors that lead buyers to choose another provider or buy nothing at all.

As the First Law of Influence implies, you will not be able to influence everyone all the time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t influence many people most of the time if you have enough power and use the right influence techniques.  Leadership skill and the ability to influence others effectively have become increasingly important not only in business and government but in all walks of life, and influence is now being taught—in some form—in many educational institutions.  Masters in Public Administration and MBA degrees, for instance, now feature these skills prominently in the curriculum.

(excerpted from Terry R. Bacon, Elements of Influence:  The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead, AMACOM Books, 2011)

Photo © Alexsalcedo |

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If You Want to be More Influential, Improve Your Social Skills

Dale Carnegie got it right when he said that to win more friends and influence more people you need to improve your interpersonal skills.  My thirty years of research on power and influence shows that people with superior social skills are substantially more influential than people with average social skills.  These findings make sense when you realize that influence is not something you have; it’s something other people give you.  So influence is in large part a function of your relationship with other people, and the rule of thumb on influence is that you are likely to be more successful if the people you want to influence know you, like you, respect you, and trust you.

Being Known

It is significantly easier to influence people you know than people you don’t.  So go out of your way to make yourself known.  If you’re in an organization, this means increasing your visibility throughout the organization.  Introduce yourself to people.  Have lunch with people you don’t know and strike up a conversation.  As you get to know them, let them know who you are.  My research shows that people who are highly skilled at being friendly and sociable with strangers and building close relationships are more than twice as influential as people who are less skilled at sociability and relationship building.  People around the world instinctively understand this, which is why socializing is one of the most frequently used influence techniques globally.  If you aren’t naturally good at socializing, then this is a key skill to build—and it can be learned and improved through practice.  Extraverts are usually naturally adept at socializing, but being an introvert is not necessarily a liability.  You may just have to try harder to do something that does not come naturally to you.Young professional woman smiling

Being Liked

Sometimes, you know the person you want to influence but aren’t as influential as you’d wish with him or her because of bad chemistry.  Many years ago when I was young and single a friend introduced me to a young woman, and she and I dated for a while.  She was a nice, attractive person, and we tried to be a couple but it just didn’t work.  Somehow, we got on each other’s nerves and whatever either of us said or did was somehow wrong.  There was no chemistry between us, and it wasn’t her fault or mine.  We just weren’t a good match for each other.  So it goes.  In my three decades in business I’ve had similar situations with some colleagues and clients.  Despite everyone’s good intentions, the plain fact is that there’s something about the other person each of you just doesn’t like.

I wrote in The Elements of Power (2011) that attraction can be a significant source of power, and it’s based partly on the psychological principle of liking.  We are more inclined to say yes to people we like than to people we don’t, which is why friends are more likely to do favors for each other than they are for people they don’t know.  So to be more influential, do what you can to be more likeable to the people you want to influence.  Of course, we each have whatever physical gifts (or challenges) we were both with, but you should do the best you can with what you have.  Good grooming, posture, dress, and manners go a long way toward making you more attractive to others.  In business, as well as many other walks of life, these things matter.  The same is true with interpersonal behaviors that people like:  friendliness, generosity, warmth, caring, and acceptance.  When we act with these qualities, people are more inclined to like us.  Conversely, if we are pushy, arrogant, boastful, self-centered, rude, disrespectful, dishonest, or otherwise annoying, people will be inclined to dislike us.  Personality is a key component of likeability.

Being Respected and Trusted

Trust and respect are largely about character, credibility, and confidence.  You build character through courage, integrity, reliability, and similar character traits; you build credibility through your knowledge, access to information, role, and reputation (of which work ethic, results, and contributions are a significant factor); and you build confidence by behaving self-confidently, achieving consistently superior results, making good decisions, and exercising sound judgment.  If you are a member of a business or professional organization, people will also trust and respect you more if you are actively involved, engaged, and committed to the enterprise.  To become highly influential, it helps to be well-liked, well-regarded, and indispensable. Young people enjoying wine and conversation

Fortunately, none of us is born with a fixed amount of power and influence.  No matter who you are, you can become more powerful and more influential, and one of the keys is improving your interpersonal and social skills.  For more tips on how to do this, see Elements of Influence:  The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead (2011) or my earlier book, What People Want (2006).  Also see Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which he first published in 1936 but is still relevant today.

Parts of this article are excerpted from Terry R. Bacon, Elements of Influence:  The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead (NY:  AMACOM Books, 2011).

Photo credits:  Friends in a bar:  Sean Locke/  Young businesswoman:  Mariday/  Business people looking at a chart:  Jacob Wackerhausen/

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The Power of Networking

Networking has long been recognized as a powerful tool for business people and professionals.  Knowing more people gives you greater access, facilitates the sharing of information, and makes it easier to influence others for the simple reason that influencing people you know is easier than influencing strangers.  The creators of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter have built their platforms on the presumption that their social networking tools help people build their networks and remain better connected than ever.  Does it follow, then, that social networks, by making connectivity easier, make leaders more powerful?The icons and logos of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter

The answer is no.  Clearly, social networks allow you learn about other people you might never have known of otherwise.  On LinkedIn, you can build awareness of your products or services, join groups of people with similar interests, search for job opportunities, or look for people who might be qualified to fill a position in your company.  And Facebook enables you to find long-lost classmates or share with friends what you liked about a new film, what you saw during your trip to Venice, or what you ate for breakfast.

But these benefits of social networking, while valuable to some degree depending on how robustly you use these networks, miss the essence of what makes networking such a powerful tool for leaders and other highly influential people.  The research on power and influence shows that people who are well networked are three times more influential than people who aren’t.  But their power is based on the social capital they have developed in building relationships with the people in their network—and you can’t build sufficient capital with people by merely “friending” them on Facebook or accepting an invitation to connect on LinkedIn.

Network power depends on how strong your relationships are, on how much attention you command when you engage people in your network, and on how attractive you are as a member of other peoples’ networks.  If you are known as a source of deep expertise, for instance, and people can rely on you for expert solutions or creative ideas, you will be a more attractive network partner than someone who lacks that expertise.  If you know other powerful people and can access them whenever you need to, you will be a more attractive network partner.  Similarly, if you are in a position of authority in your organization and can make things happen, you will be a more valued network partner.  Finally, you will have more power in your network with the people you know best—with long-time colleagues, close friends, and others with whom you have developed mutual trust and respect. Woman holding laptop with connecting arrows on the wall behind her

It may be possible to build those kinds of relationships with people you meet on social networks, but it’s unlikely unless you sustain contact with them over an extended period, have meaningful exchanges with them, disclose a lot about yourself and learn much about them, and build the kind of trusting relationships that normally occur when you have worked with someone successfully over a period of time.

I have more than 1000 connections on LinkedIn.  At least two-thirds of those connections are with people who asked to be connected with me and whom I’ve accepted even though I’ve never met them.  They might have been friends of friends or colleagues in my company whom I’ve spoken to on the phone but don’t know well.  Or they might be people who have read my profile and thought it would be useful to them to be connected to me.  In all these cases, my power with these people is limited by the fact that I have relatively little genuine social capital with them (and vice versa).

Networking can be a powerful tool.  It can enhance your ability to lead and influence other people—but only when the people in your network value being connected with you—and value you for more just being just one of the hundreds of people in their network.  The power of networking lies in how well they know you, how much they trust you, how much they gain from having you in their network, how frequently you communicate with them, and how many other powerful people there are in your network.

Social networks like LinkedIn are useful, but they are no substitute for direct personal connections and the kind of history you develop with people when they have known you for a long time, when they have learned to trust you, and when they have come to value the relationship.

For more information, see my website on power and influence or my book, The Elements of Power.