Socratic Influence – April 2023

Socrates was born in 470 BCE, and is widely considered the founder of Western philosophy. A testatment to his genius is that his advice for influencing others has relevance centuries after his death. Even though Socrates is most known as a philosopher, the Socratic Method is the basis for some of the best traditions of debate, education, politics, and social discourse. I say the best traditions because his approach is not as widely used as it should be, to our detriment. To be fair, by its creator’s own admission, the Socratic Method is too complex to apply to all situations, but its tenets are a good reminder about how to resolve disagreement. Read on and reflect, as I have, on how well you follow his steps toward positive influence.

Tenet #1 Admit that you don’t have the answer

Even though Socrates easily qualifies as a genius, he never claimed to have the answer to any debate. In fact, his opening statements included, “I certainly do not have the answer, but perhaps we can find it together.” The ability to set asides one’s ego and fold others’ points of view into the discussion is a masterful use of influence. Not only because the method avoids useless head-butting, but because it ensures that any conclusion resulting from the discussion will be followed without resistance. While conflicts may be resolved in the moment, they are often nullified by inaction or hesitance later. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers is also a great way to build trust; the foundation to good debate.

Tenet #2 Ask questions that foster agreement

While watching a news reporter interview supporters of a certain political candidate, whenever the supporters stated what they liked about their candidate, the reporter would respond with a counter-arguement. “That isn’t true because on April 12th of last year, your candidate said…” This is a common tactic of influence, but also highly ineffective. This approach never results in the other person saying, “Wow, you are right. My thinking has been wrong all along.” Quite the opposite, they dig their heels in even further. Rather than reach common ground, you have created an entrenched opponent.

Socrates rarely made declarative statements. Instead, he would ask questions designed to clarify positions and find common ground. “I understand your position. In such a case, would you agree that…?” When Socrates asked, “Would you agree…?” it was never an attempt to corner the other person or challenge their opinion. If you follow Tenet #1, you don’t claim to have the answer in the first place. It is impossible to trap someone if you are both seeking the truth together. Asking questions is the best path toward eventual agreement.

Tenet #3 Root out inconsistencies

The ultimate goal of the Socratic Method was not to determine a winner and loser, it was to continually seek the truth. But Socrates also acknowledged that the real truth of any debate is likely out of reach. The real goal was to create an environment of healthy conversation so that the search for truth was productive. To achieve this, Socrates sought to expose inconsistencies in reasoning. If two beliefs are contradictory, then the fault lies in our logic. It is our responsibility to set aside our egos and examine our beliefs, not as symbols of our self-worth, but as chess pieces that can always be moved to our advantage. Socrates believed that inconsistencies were not character flaws, but openings to self-examination.

Tenet #4 Debate respectfully

Socrates abhorred personal attacks during debate. He treated everyone with respect, even those with whom he vehemently disagreed. To this point, even when he was charged with corrupting youth by preaching against the state religion, he treated his judges (hundreds of male citizens called to render their verdict) with respect. The great irony is, one of the most influential minds in history could not influence his jurors to his favor, and he was ordered to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.

Can you imagine what debate would be like today if the Socratic Method were our standard? How different would the world of social media be? We certainly don’t have the power to change all of society, or social media, but we do have the ability to raise our skills of influence by using Socrates’ guidelines. Ask questions, seek the truth without claiming to own it, and be nice to each other. And no hemlock!

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

Familiarity Breeds Influence – March 2023

In the second century CE, Roman philosopher and rhetorician Lucius Apuleis first said, Familiarity breeds contempt, while rarity wins admiration. Sadly, Apuleis did not live in a time of peer-reviewed research. As such, his admonition sends us 180 degrees from developing one of the most important elements of influence; relationships. To establish an influential relationship with someone, you must foster a good primary relationship so the secondary relationship doesn’t sabotage your efforts.

G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa of the Wharton School identify a major obstacle to influence, how the other person views your relationship to him or her. If the relationship is one of familiarity and trust, you have a foundation of influence. If the relationship is tentative, you are left hoping that your idea, product, or service is strong enough to stand on its own. In this case, your influence is weak. The Primary Relationship is the one you develop face-to-face with the person you are influencing. The Secondary Relationship consists of the people you never see, but who will affect whether your efforts will be adopted. The person you influenced takes your idea to other people, where a decision is made whether to move forward with your idea. In the secondary phase, when you are not able to speak on your own behalf, you must rely on your Primary Relationship to be your advocate.

A common mistake is to think that, as long as you educate your Primary Relationship well enough, he or she will be equipped to speak on your behalf. The risk is, even if they are familiar with the facts, if they meet opposition. Now they must advocate for more than just the facts, they must advocate for you. People do not advocate for others based on facts, they advocate because they like them. You can’t like someone with whom you are not truly familiar. This is where modern communication gets in the way. In the last thirty years or so, the interests of expediancy and convenience have overtaken the need for real human connection. Just a few decades ago, the main forms of communication were face-to-face or voice-to-voice. We could see facial expressions, hear vocal inflections, and read body language—all the signals that the human brain has come to rely upon to determine how to behave, who to believe, and how to interact with others. E-mail has been available since the ‘80s, texting since the late ‘90s. The human brain does not evolve quickly enough to adjust to these sudden changes in communication. We cannot form relationships based on words on a screen. Video conferencing got us a step closer to the real thing, but a video screen is still no replacement for the real thing. (And if your wi-fi isn’t perfect, video glitches and audio drop-outs can make sending a hand-written letter seem like a better option.)

The real problem we face today is that electronic communication is dulling our senses when it comes to developing on-the-spot relationships. When the pandemic restrictions first lifted, and people began congregating again, there was a nationwide spike in rude public behavior. Psychologists discovered that, after only a few months in isolation, people had actually forgotten how to interact with strangers. Add to the problem that an entire generation that is growing up only interacting with a video screen, and relationship-building is on very shaky ground.

It is time to practice. For your own skills, start seeing every interaction as a relationship. Talk to strangers. In business, engage in conversation that goes beyond just the necessary. Make it your goal to get a laugh or a smile out of someone you just met. If you move beyond basic interaction and into real connection, you will hone your ability to sense when someone welcomes more, or needs to move on. Take a risk and open up dialogue. For your team’s skills, if you can meet face-to-face, do so. If not, be sure to include personal dialogue in video conferences to sharpen relationship skills. Even e-mails and texts should go beyond just facts. Good writing captures attention, which means letting your personality, not just facts, drive what you type.

We have paid the price for quick and easy communication by losing our ability to connect and build relationships. But we can get it back, with practice.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at or 952-500-9230.

I Feel Your Pain – February 2023

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

I was boarding a plane recently and going through the usual airline passenger worries, I hope my seatmate has showered in the last week. I hope I get at least one armrest. As I was stowing my carry-on (I got an overhead bin!) I saw a young father holding a baby approach a man sitting in an aisle seat a few rows away. “Excuse me. I am trying to have my family seated together. Is there any way you would be willing to switch seats so we could all sit together?” The response? “Not my problem. This is my seat!” Now, this was only a 50-minute flight, and the father was asking to exchange an aisle seat for an aisle seat only a couple of rows away. The actual impact on the rude guy would have been minimal. Still, he wanted what he wanted. I had a nice laugh when, moments later, the flight attendant asked to see the rude guy’s boarding pass, and he was in the wrong seat. The father got to have his family together while the rude guy sat right across from the restrooms. Was I petty by getting up and using the restroom five times during the flight?

No this isn’t a column about manners. It is about what many psychologists consider to be the most advanced state of human development—empathy. No other trait—intelligence, critical analysis, or strategic thinking—can match empathy when it comes to leading others. First, let’s make clear the distinction between empathy and sympathy. While sympathy is the ability to be moved by someone else’s experience, empathy goes one step further; it allows us to put ourselves in the person’s shoes—to feel what they are feeling. Social psychologists believe that empathy is one of the tools that allowed humans to flourish as a species.

The rude guy on the airplane was certainly capable of empathy. Most humans start developing the trait as young as twelve months of age. He just chose to deny it to the young father. Even violent criminals and terrorists have even scored high on scales of empathy. The difference between them and the general population is that they reserve empathy only for those in their inner circle, which justifies their heinous acts.

Leaders who wish to influence, negotiate, or resolve issues must foster the ability to empathize with everyone they work or do business with. It is not enough to understand someone else’s situation on a cognitive level, empathy requires leaders to internalize others’ plights. Some people resist empathy because they see it as a surrender of some kind, a weakening of their personal power. However, according to Dr. Daniel Gruhn et. al. in Empathy Across the Adult Lifespan, the ability to empathize with others is associated with what is called a positive interaction profile; an advanced ability to work with others toward a positive outcome.

However, cultivating empathy is not as simple as saying to yourself, “I am going to be better at feeling what others feel.” Although empathy is developed as we mature, it is not something you are either born with or not. Empathy is a discipline, and like all disciplines, it grows stronger with practice. The first step to developing empathy is to foster a sense of curiosity in others. Empathetic people really listen when others talk. And they ask questions to learn more. They don’t just make small talk; they show an active interest in others’ lives. Empathy also requires us to confront our biases. All humans have biases, but empathetic people work to keep biases out of the driver’s seat. They recognize when their preconceived notions are shutting them off to others’ experiences.  Empathetic people are also more willing to step out of their comfort zone. Being in unfamiliar territory forces us to experience life from other people’s perspective.

To the final point, stepping outside of our comfort zone, psychologists have discovered that people who are shy or fearful are also less likely to engage feelings of empathy when in stressful situations. Fear causes us to exert control over situations, cancelling out empathy. In short, empathy takes courage; the strength to let others take the lead.

Good leaders avoid thinking, Why in the world would anyone think that? Instead, they ask, I wonder why they think that?

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

Let’s Take a Break – January 2023

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

I am at the dog park with our two pooches, Cinnamon and Sage, on a crisp Minnesota morning. In Minnesota, crisp translates into you can’t feel your nose. I would not have been outside in the first place, except our dogs don’t know how to read a thermometer. We got our dogs from a shelter, and soon discovered that they were never fully socialized with other dogs, so they get overwhelmed if there are a lot of other animals around. This doesn’t lead to any nasty dog fights, just occasional barking and posturing. As such, we only go the dog park when no one else is there, and we leash up and slip out when others arrive. But, back to that face-freezing morning.

As we were getting ready to leave, another guy with a twelve-pounder showed up. (If I don’t know the breed, I go by weight.) As the three dogs passed each other, they all wanted to claim the territory as their own, so out came the snarls and arched backs. Most dog owners recognize this as normal canine behavior, but the other guy (we’ll call him Harold), took great offense that Cinnamon and Sage didn’t yield the right of way to his pup. He looked at me with a snarl that matched his pet’s and said, “Get your G** d*** dogs out of here!”

People who know me know that I am a fairly non-confrontational guy, so I said, “No problem. We were leaving anyway. Sorry to bother you.” That wasn’t enough for Harold. “What the f*** do you think you’re doing bringing dogs like that here in the first place.” Of course, my dogs behaved exactly like his twelve-pounder, but as I have coached in these columns for years, you never get anywhere if you negate someone. So, I used the rule of “Yes, and…” to the best of my ability. I said, “You are right. Not all dogs get along, which is why we only come here when there is no one else around. That’s why we are leaving. I saw you coming, and I am getting these little guys out of here.”

Harold would hear none of it. “I don’t ever want to see you at this dog park again!” This bold command came as a shock, but I stayed true to the “Yes, and…” rule. “Well, if you do, don’t worry. I keep my dogs leashed, so there is no danger. And they have never hurt another person or dog, they just bark and raise their back hairs, nothing more.” I can only guess that Harold either had a fight with his spouse that morning, or he was just notified that he was being audited by the IRS, because nothing I said got us any closer to a resolution. At one point, he actually demanded to know which car was mine so he could record my license plate number for future reference. I eventually just left, with Harold assigning all kinds of unrepeatable names to me on the way. By that time, all three dogs were over it, and ready to play.

As I ruminated on the situation over the next few days, I realized what I should have done differently (and no, it was not letting my dogs settle the argument for me). While I followed the rule of “Yes, and…”, I forgot another important rule of conflict resolution and influence, the incubation period. When people are agitated, the amygdala (the fight-or-flight center in the brain) is in full force. The accompanying state of agitation cannot subside until the amygdala response diminishes. And there is only one thing that abates the amygdala response—time.

With Harold, I made the classic mistake of trying to talk him down. I assumed that, with enough words, he would finally calm down. What I should have said was, “Well, you have said your piece, and I have said mine. Let’s leave it at that. I hope we have a better encounter the next time we see each other.”

The first rule of conflict resolution, and influence, is sometimes you have to just walk away. The brain needs time to incubate on the situation, especially if there is new information to absorb. Funny, I always thought I was smarter than my dogs. Guess not.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

Influence Ad Hominem – December 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

In a series of experiments at Dartmouth College, researchers tested the ability of people to change their opinions based on new information. In one experiment, subjects were given fake newspaper articles that confirmed a certain position (for example, that Irag possessed weapons of mass destruction, justifying the U.S. invasion of that country.) This was not meant to change people’s position on the war, which it did not. Those who opposed the war still opposed it, and those who supported it now felt they had more reason to do so. However, when the subjects were given new articles that reversed the information, not only did those who supported the war stick to their position, they dug in even deeper. In fact, it was discovered nationwide that supporters of the Iraq War continued to believe in the existence of WMDs long after the Bush administration concluded that there were none. Some justified their belief by saying that it only proved Saddam Hussein’s cleverness, that he could hide the weapons so well that we never found them.

The researchers called this the backfire effect. Information that opposes a strong opinion can sometimes cause us to resist change even more; believing in the misperception more than before. This is because people rarely believe that facts are simply facts. If we did, debates would remain in the realm of logic. We would focus only on action and consequence. Facts would remain external to ourselves, and when facts change with new information, we would not see it as a reflection of our own sense of worth. Sadly, facts are rarely external. The facts we believe are ad hominem. The facts we believe represent us as a person. When you attack my facts, you attack me.

Influence is not necessary when everyone is moving in the same direction. Influence, by its nature, involves a correction—of facts, beliefs, behavior, and decisions. But if challenging facts risks challenging the very person who believes in them, how can we ever hope to achieve harmony at work, or at home? The answer lies in what Dr. Robert Cialdini calls Liking (read his book, Influence: Science and Practice). When we like someone, we don’t take things like new information personally. A likeable person doesn’t shove facts down our throats, or lord them over us with a “I know more than you do” attitude. A likeable person shares facts. New information is presented in such a way that everyone can use the information to their best benefit.

A buddy of mine, Dave, is really good at this. Once, I was espousing some worldview that I was quite sure of, but Dave had availed himself of new research. Rather than correct me, Dave said, “You know, I used to think that same thing until I read this new research about that. You are really interested in this subject, so I think you will find it fascinating too.” As Dave showed me the research, he kept saying things like, “Isn’t this cool?” and “I knew you would like this, ‘cause it is right up your alley.” By the time we were done, I had completely reversed my position, and not once did I feel corrected. Dave realized that all facts are ad hominem, so he made my personal connection to the facts a positive instead of a negative.

Politicians have long used the tactic of attacking the messenger. If you don’t like the facts your opponent is reporting, attack the person delivering them. Sadly, this approach has become the strategy of choice of late. This may work to win elections, but there is a cost. People who attack the messenger may be viewed as powerful, but they are only liked by those who already liked them in the first place. This approach rarely changes minds. Business leaders have no such luxury. Likeable people don’t divide others, they connect them. They build morale, they don’t destroy it. They realize that long-term relationships depend on likeable personalities, not just winners.

To keep ad hominem attacks out of influence 1) keep your emotions in check, 2) discuss the situation objectively without focusing on who believes what, 3) never disrespect others’ beliefs (remember, everything makes sense to the person who believes it), 4) only state your position once you can clearly articulate someone else’s, and 5) show how a change of facts can still support someone’s world view.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

Anger and Influence: A Good Pair or a Mismatch? – November 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

Anyone who has ever said, “Remember, never go to bed angry at your spouse,” has obviously never been married. Sometimes tense situations simply cannot be resolved in the midst of anger. The brain needs an incubation period to sort things out. I am lucky, I don’t remember the last time I went to bed angry at my wife. But influencing in an atmosphere of anger is easily one of the trickiest challenges at work or at home. And your success often depends, not on the conversation between you and your partner, but in who else that person is talking to.

It is no secret that emotions are the driving force behind all decision-making. Apologies to the prefrontal cortex, but its thought-out, logical approach to life will have to wait until humans evolve for a few more millennia. Emotions rule, however, they are not the automatic response to outside influences that we assume. And we are not simply subjects of whatever emotions we happen to feel, we actually use emotions as a tool to guide the behavior of ourselves and those around us.

Humans are so socially connected that we cannot allow ourselves to feel something without trying to cause those around us to feel the same thing. And with increasing intensity. Let’s take a common occurrence. Management is negotiating a new contract with representatives of the working staff. Things start getting heated. It is obvious that the angrier everyone gets, the less productive the meeting. Each side thinks, If only everyone on the other side didn’t stoke each others’ anger, we could discuss this calmly. In these situations, it is easy to label people as over-emotional, easily swayed, or blindly following the group. But the truth is, all humans follow this pattern of behavior.

Researchers at Stanford University conducted tests in which subjects where shown potentially upsetting images, alone and in groups. They discovered that people do try to regulate their own emotions if those emotions are deemed harmful or not useful in solving a problem. So, we are not entirely captive to our emotions. However, if people wanted to use their emotions to support their opinions, they sought out others who expressed the same emotion. So, instead of the group’s emotions affecting the individual, the individual sought out the group that supported his or her point of view. Anger becomes a tool.

We also seek out others to amplify our emotions. The Stanford group also examined nearly 19 million Twitter posts. They discovered that users were more influenced by angry posts about social or political issues than by calmer, more measured posts. These users not only sought out others in their social network who expressed similar intense emotions, but their own responses showed an increased emotional intensity. This let’s see who can top the other pattern is why social media can be so dangerous, and users must be mindful of how they engage with others online.

How can leaders in business influence when so many outside forces are at work? One of the lead researchers in the Stanford study said, “…the best way to regulate your emotions is to start with the selection of your environment. If you don’t want to be angry today, one way to avoid that is to avoid angry people.” We obviously cannot control who associates with who in the workplace, but we can try to control the environment in which we influence others. One-on-one conversations can prevent group anger from hijacking the meeting. If solo meetings are not an option, find ways to address individuals within a group, “Jonathan, I have heard what the group thinks, but I would like to hear from you as an individual. What do you, yourself, think about this?” And make sure Jonathan is allowed to speak by himself.

It is also incumbent upon influencers to monitor their own environment. To be mindful of how others’ emotions affect their own. Many a time I have talked to my fellow directors about a company member and caught myself committing the Twitter Effect: increasing my emotional intensity to outdo my fellow leaders. Later, I realize that the issue did not warrant nearly the intensity I had given it.

Control the environment and you have a better shot at influencing in a calm atmosphere.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

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The Most Important Point of View…Someone Else’s – October 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

I sat staring at my phone. I didn’t want to call one of my directors, Joe. He and I had been going back and forth about a new program for our company and we could not agree on scheduling. My nature is to jump into things right away, so I wanted to get things on the calendar tout de suite. Joe is more on the cautious side, so he was advocating for later in the year. During our last conversation, we reached an impasse, so we did the smart thing—table the issue. One of the best things your can do for your brain is provide what psychologists call an incubation period. The brain can become overwhelmed when trying to sort out all kinds of facts and information. Time away from the issue allows it to sift through the data and re-join the conversation more productively. Because the brain does most of its reorganizing while you sleep, the most optimal incubation period is overnight. The phrase, let’s sleep on it, didn’t come from nowhere. Joe and I got the incubation part right, but what Joe did next surprised me.

As I geared up to make the phone call, I did what a lot of people do when faced with opposition, I lined up my facts like little soldiers going into battle. I also engaged in what is called defensive pessimism. That is when you think of everything that could possibly go wrong, so you can be ready to defend yourself. Defensive pessimism is not all bad. It is good for your brain to minimize nasty surprises. Joe engaged in defensive pessimism himself, but for an entirely different reason, which is why he was more successful during the follow-up conversation.

When the phone call got underway, I was ready to defend my ideas, but Joe was also ready…to defend my ideas. He said, “I thought a lot about what you said before, and I really wanted to make sure we kept in mind your need to get this started before the holiday season. I looked into it during our break, and did some research about pre-holiday buying trends, so I could fully understand your point of view. While we don’t want to jump on this plan too quickly, we need to make sure your concerns are accounted for, so here is what I propose.” As Joe laid out his plan, all I could think was, “He didn’t research all the reasons why he was right, he worked to support my point of view.

By showing that he was not simply caving into my demands, but truly concerned about the basis for my thinking, Joe gained a degree of trust not often found in contentious debates. Because of the trust that Joe established, I found myself agreeing with many other points he brought into the conversation. As such, the call was much shorter than I had anticipated, and I couldn’t wait for our next meeting.

When people want to win a debate or have an argument go our way, we usually spend all our time and energy building up our defenses. We rely on the old saying that the best defense is a good offense. That adage might work on the battlefield or in sports, but it should never be applied when you want solid relationships. It is a big ask to suggest that people add another task to their already full schedules, but taking additional time to research someone else’s point of view so you are fully educated about their position will save more time than it requires to perform.

We must also go beyond simply researching someone else’s point of view. We must know the sources of their information, without immediately dismissing those sources. If someone you disagree with claims their source to be a news program that you despise, you must remember that it is a source that someone else trusts, and you must find a way to work with their trusted source of information. It is vital to remind ourselves to ask why an intelligent and rational person would hold certain points of view.

I was embarrassed that Joe did a better job at influencing than I did. Now I am off to research his viewpoints.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

People Do Not Care About What is Good for Them – September 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose in 1796, contains the phrase, “He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face.” It refers to the act of injuring one’s self to harm someone else. The phrase has evolved into the warning, Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, which sums up one of the greatest challenges of influence—trying to offer helpful solutions to someone who seems bent on taking the path that is most harmful to themselves. Indeed, it is frustrating to try to influence a good outcome when the other person is clearly incapable of understanding that you are only thinking of what is best for them. If only everyone else would just trust that we have their best interests at heart.

An important factor in whether someone is willing to be guided toward a beneficial solution is how long, and how often, they have thought of this issue before you come along with your ideas. The longer someone has to ponder a problem, the more likely they are to have developed a solution of their own, opening the door to our old friend confirmation bias (the tendency to only seek information which supports our deeply held beliefs). Once confirmation bias has set in, your chances of changing someone’s mind stand as much chance as putting shoes on a snake.

Confirmation bias is much more dangerous than causing people to ignore uncomfortable facts. This all-too-human tendency can actually alter our mental faculties. In the study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, researchers discovered that people with good math skills were only effective at solving math problems when the answer coincided with their political beliefs. For instance, Progressives were only good at solving math problems if the solution to the problem concluded that stricter gun control laws lowered gun violence. (Don’t gloat Conservatives. The research showed that this phenomenon equally affects both sides of the political aisle.) It appears that even the most logical brain function—mathematics—is not immune to emotion. Finding a logical answer to a problem is affected by whether the answer itself is agreeable.

In another study, “They Saw a Protest”: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, researchers showed subjects video clips of protestors, but it was unclear from the video what the protestors were angry about. Some subjects were told the protestors were speaking against the military policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, others were told the protest was against an abortion clinic. Those subjects who supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, rated the protestors as more violent than subjects who agreed with the protestors’ position. Similarly, subjects who supported reproductive rights considered the protestors at the abortion clinic to be more violent.

Confirmation bias affects more than our willingness to accept new evidence, it has the potential to alter our very perception of reality, as well as our cognitive abilities. No wonder an influencer with new and innovative solutions will often contend with brains shuttered behind brick walls of resistance.

It is easy to see why it can be impossible to get someone else to realize that we are working for their own good. The brain values comfort over all else, and nothing is more comfortable than a preconceived notion. A poor influencer will try to overcome this bias with a flood of facts, which is an ineffective method given that research above shows that the brain can easily ignore what it dislikes and recalculate the rest to fit its narrative. This is frustrating when you have spent all that time gathering facts! The poor influencer will also try to impress upon the listener that the solution is really best for all concerned, a position that risks inciting distrust.

The skilled influencer will first lend support to the listener’s position. Rather than arguing over surface issues, she digs deeper until a common cause is found that can provide a foundation for discussion. The skilled influencer also finds a way to ensure that the solution she offers actually supports the goals of the listener, instead of pulling a bait-and-switch to get to the ends she initially planned.

Facts are not facts. The same reality viewed through different eyes creates different pictures. Doing what is best for someone must account for how they see the picture.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

The Entrenched Opinion – August 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

I was talking with a colleague the other day and the subject of COVID-related mask requirements came up. As soon as we broached the subject, I got tense because I knew that we were on opposite sides of the fence on the issue. We did what many people do; we each stated our position and then dropped the matter so we could go home wondering how the other person could be so stubborn. The irony is, even though my expertise is influence, I often employ the same ineffective methods of persuasion that I preach against (influencer, heal thyself). Namely, I state evidence that I think it so compelling that there is no way the other person can deny it. This method fails for a very simple reason. The way to avoid this failure is even more simple.

First, the reason pushing our own facts onto the listener doesn’t work is not because the other person is defending their position on the subject. It is because they are defending their social position. To hold an opinion, but abandon it under pressure, threatens something more important than our opinion on social issues, it threatens our self-image. The human brain values social acceptance over political accuracy. Giving up a belief risks losing the people who stood at our side. When a woman recently told her neighbors that she had re-considered her stance on a sensitive political topic, they said, “You have forgotten what it means to be from here.” That kind of pressure is powerful, and it cannot be ignored when seeking to influence others’ opinions.

The way around this roadblock is deceptively simple, and a bit deceptive. Instead of pushing back against their opinion, convince others that you both share the same view. In an NYU study, participants were given photos of two different people and asked to choose which they found more attractive. The researchers retrieved both photos and said they would give back the photo the subject chose as more attractive. However, the researchers actually gave the subject the other photo. You might think the subjects said, “Hey, you gave me the wrong one,” but no. When asked to explain why they chose that person as more attractive, they explained all their reasons while describing a photo of the wrong person.

The results were the same when subjects were asked to discuss social or political topics. Whenever the subject was asked to defend their opinion, they did so vehemently, even if it was not the opinion they originally held. The social nature of the human brain causes us to be less concerned with what we believe, than who else believes it. Our need to defend ourselves creates a knee-jerk response; rather than admit defeat, we will defend something we never believed in the first place.

This is easy to understand, but not so easy to employ. You can’t just go around switching photos on people or telling them they chose one thing when they really chose another. University studies are a great source of insight, but not always easy to translate into real-world application. However, there is a clear take-away from this research—instead of pushing back against opposition, restate the other person’s position in a way that brings all parties closer to the middle. If they say something is black, and you say it is white, the other person will spend all eternity proving it is black. However, if you say, “I see. So, you are saying there is no black or white on this. Tell me why” you lay the foundation for conversation, and compromise.

However effective, this approach brings up an obvious concern, manipulation. Using manipulation in persuasion risks damaging relationships, but we do have to consider, in light of human nature, whether influence is even possible without a bit of nudging on the influencer’s part. We cannot ignore the fact that we enter into relationships with a need that we must fulfill. The best deals are obviously those that benefit both parties, but even the most mutually beneficial deals are rarely reached smoothly.

In the end, the best way to use this new information is as a reminder to always be on the look-out for techniques of influence that avoid head-to-head confrontation. Rather than state the other person’s position as being in opposition to your own, create a statement of commonality and work from there.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

Ignore Emotions and Fail at Influence – June 2022

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

Here is how most people approach getting others to do what they want. They research the facts, build a solid case for their argument, state their case in a compelling pitch, and believe that the facts are strong enough to speak for themselves. If they meet resistance, they re-state the facts, but louder. If things don’t work out, they retreat to their office and wonder why the other person couldn’t understand their reasoning. Most attempts at influence fail because when we present our ideas, we skip past the emotional qualities of the idea, and go directly to reason. This belies the basis of how ideas are formed in the first place.

Every new idea is the result of an emotion, a feeling of wouldn’t it be cool if, or I really hate it when. Emotions drive us to use our intellect to solve problems or invent fun new stuff. The problem is, when we tell someone else about our idea, we have lived with the idea long enough that our own emotions have subsided, so we present the idea coated in logic. We cheat the listener out of the only reason the idea was cool in the first place.

Watch children—the greatest influencers ever—interact with each other. When a child suggests a new game, they don’t list the benefits and advantages of the game. They say, “This game is so FUN!” Only after everyone is on board do they discuss details. Adults reverse the process, describing the benefits of their ideas in the hopes that it will generate excitement and lead to acceptance. Adults are so focused on outcomes that we forget that the ultimate aim of our work is to improve the emotional quality of others—to either minimize unpleasant experiences or maximize pleasant ones. Another reason we avoid connecting to emotions in the workplace is because we don’t want to appear unprofessional—which is a sign of fear or insecurity.

Since every decision or action is the result of an emotion, we cannot effectively influence without connecting to emotions. To master influence, we must be comfortable with the full range of emotions that drive human behavior. We must also recognize that there are no such things as negative emotions. There are emotions that feel pleasant, and those that feel unpleasant, but to label certain emotions negative causes us to avoid them. Avoiding emotions—in ourselves or others—limits our ability to deal with them; therefore, limiting our ability to influence others.

One of my areas of expertise in the martial arts is self-defense. Recently, I asked a group of students under what conditions it would be appropriate to express anger. Most said, “Very rarely.” Then I asked when they thought rage would be an appropriate emotion. They said, “Never!” I explained that emotions are not simply reactions to events around us, they are tools to guide us toward better outcomes in the future. Anger, like all emotions, is a tool. It’s purpose is to show others when they have crossed our boundaries. It is possible to calmly inform others of our boundaries, but sometimes anger is necessary to remind others of how important those lines are. I told the students that, when there is risk to your life or the life of someone else, rage may be just the emotion you need to react strongly enough to survive.

Of course, unpleasant emotions such as anger, dissapointment, impatience, and indignation should not be your first choice when influencing others, but you cannot master influence without being able to identify the subtle differences in how others are feeling. Anxiety is caused by a percieved inability to handle an upcoming challenge, which is different than dissapointment, which is caused by not getting an outcome we desired, which is different than frustration, which is caused by repeated failed attempts at solving a problem. Each emotion has a different source, so each calls for a different solution—all of which affects how you influence others.

In short, mastering the art of influence requires mastering empathy—the ability to discern the unique emotions of those around you. This means that, rather than labeling others as nice or not nice, we must discern exactly what they are feeling. Knowing how others feel is the only way to influence their behavior.

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

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