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 www.stevierayspeaks.com

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