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Whether at work or in life, on issues big or small, people seek to change minds as a matter of course. What’s more, the vast majority have good intentions and genuinely want to influence people, not manipulate them.
But what’s the difference between influence and manipulation? How can you distinguish between them? And how, in the real world, can you know for certain you’re not crossing a line?
I’ve devoted my life’s work to discovering the answers. This includes polling more than 50,000 people, across three decades and four continents, on how decisions are made.
Here’s what I know for sure: Influence without manipulation isn’t a pitch—it’s a process. And the process that I believe in, that I teach to thousands of people every year, comes with a promise: It is repeatable, predictable, and measurable. It is also practical and actionable; it can be adapted by anyone, at any time, to any situation.
Study and practice this process, and you’ll influence, not manipulate, and change minds. Start with these six keys:
1. Understand the decision cycle. People move through six predictable stages—a universal decision cycle—whenever they make a change. If you can’t identify where someone is in the decision cycle, you probably won’t understand how to exercise influence at each stage. For instance, in the “Satisfied” stage, many people will simply say they’re satisfied just to fend off early attempts at change. Your task, then, is merely to listen and learn; in this way, you’ll gain the perspective you’ll need in other stages of the cycle.
2. Establish trust. If people don’t trust you, they won’t allow you to influence them. A smart, simple way to establish trust is to talk less and listen more. Try using the 4 A’s: ask open questions; actively listen; aim well (to guide the conversation in the desired direction); and avoid problems. By alleviating the stress that a conversation about change can cause, you’ll build trust.
3. Create urgency. Four out of five people readily admit that something in their life requires a change, but they just as readily admit that they aren’t doing anything about it yet. This is why influence requires urgency. To create urgency, ask probing questions that help people to consider the issue, contemplate the what-ifs, and comprehend the consequences. Use a sequence of simple probes that gently move the conversation closer to the real problem—questions such as, “What concerns do you have about the debt you’re building up?” and “How do you think this’ll ultimately affect your family’s future?” Your goal is to guide people to see the potential impact of indecision.
4. Gain commitment. Most people don’t just show up ready to commit to change—to, say, simply end a destructive addiction or leave a detrimental relationship or work environment. There needs to be a moment of truth, a moment of commitment. Ask the most important question never asked: “Are you committed to making a change?”
5. Initiate change. We’ve all heard the saying, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” When it comes to initiating change, that one chance usually boils down to about 45 seconds. This makes your opener particularly important. The worst opener: “I need to talk with you.” (Think about how those six words make you feel. Not great, right?) The best openers include softer words and phrases, such as ask you, listen to you, or need your help.
6. Overcome objections. It’s human nature for people to resist change. They may fear change, think it’s not needed, or feel there’s no hurry. The good news? People are more likely to change their minds if they have at least one objection. To overcome objections, you must clarify, clarify, clarify. Only then can you get to the bottom of someone’s concerns and distinguish between real objections and procrastination.
Finally, the line between influence and manipulation often comes down to intent. So ask yourself if you believe. That is, do you truly believe that the idea or solution you seek to push someone toward is in that person’s best interest? If your answer is yes, you have the very foundation of influencing—not manipulating.