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 stevie@stevierays.org or 952-500-9230.

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