Finding the Perfect Words – May 2022

My stepdaughter, Ondine, has been applying for summer jobs, and she asked me recently, “What should I say if the interviewer asks me about my past experience? Or says, ‘Tell me about yourself.’” Her question lies at the heart of all human interaction. It exposes the one concern people have when dealing with others, “What can I do, or say, to be accepted by others?” The need for approval is the basis of almost all human communication. Think about it. When was the last time you had a conversation that did not, in some way, involve influencing someone to agree with you? Or at least gain acceptance? Without some form of common bond, we cannot move on to deeper stages of the relationship.

I told Ondine the same thing I tell clients who carry the perennial stress of searching for the right thing to say. To view the process of influence through one’s choice of words miscontrues the true goal of an influential conversation; to discover a solution that works for all concerned. This is why persuasion is different than influence. Persuasion involves convincing someone to take certain actions, regardless of whether the outcome is good for them. As such, persuasion relies on creafting the message and delivery to trigger reactions in the listener. The risks with persuasion are many—rocky relationships, less forgiveness for mistakes, and lower commitment from others to help you achieve your goals.

With persuasion, saying just the right thing is important, becausee tricking the listener requires precision. Influence fosters a longer-term relationship based on accomplishing shared goals. Influence doesn’t require saying just the right thing. It requires transparency of values. Persuasion not only allows, but encourages, guardedness. A persuader must keep his cards close to his chest and hides his true intentions. The listener cannot know the true goals of a persuader. Influence requires all parties to be open about their intentions. Any hidden agenda will turn positive influence into negative persuasion.

So, I told Ondine, “If you tell the interviewer what you think he or she might want to hear, you are wasting your time and his/hers. The interview is to find out just who your are so the company can find a position best suited for you. Unless you lie or insult someone, there isn’t an answer in the world that is the wrong thing to say. Every response you give simply indicates that you are better suited for one position over another.”

This concept truly defines the difference between persuasion and influence. Persuasion is about goals; influence is about values. When we attempt to persuade, we are trying to satisfy our own goals—to make a sale, meet a quota, or advance an initiative. However, when we influence, we seek to align someone else’s values with our services. Values are more powerful in business, not simply because they are more intrinsic, but because they are more permanent. Goals change over time. Values remain stable throughout our lives. Values are what represent us, goals are the steps we take to express our values. Since strong relationships are based on shared values, influence requires us to focus on who the other person is, not just what they are trying to accomplish in the moment.

This brings us back to saying the right thing. Aside from avoiding insult, saying the right thing is the last thing we should be concerned about. Relationships are built on trust, trust demands honesty, so as long as you speak honestly you are saying the right thing. To be concerned about how others view you may be a natural part of living in a society, but remember that humans evolved living in social groups of only 30-50 people. It is easy for the brain to balance our behavior with others in such a small group. To expect to be accepted and liked by the thousands of people we encounter in the modern world is unrealistic. These wise sages say it better:

Being honest may not get you a lot of friends, but it’ll always get you the right ones.

John Lennon

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something sometime in your life.

Winston Churchill

If you go around worrying about everything you say, you’ll never say anything.

Lucy van Pelt (from Peanuts)

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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