To the public at large, a barrister has a magnificent capacity to shape an outcome. Inspiring decision-makers with stories, facts and vocal dynamics that carry the torch of truth to its rightful conclusion and hold the stage with leadership, whilst maintaining a humble and respectful relationship with whomever is on the bench. This may be true for you – perhaps you have a well-developed muscle as a public speaker.
But to inspire and influence effectively doesn’t only rest in the costume of formal proceedings. It exists in the everyday moments: calls, conversations, casual encounters that build connection, strengthen relationships, and reinforce – or change – the perceptions others form of us that determine their level of willingness to engage.
Here are five considerations that may help you develop your influencing toolkit and prompt others to be inspired by you:
- Start with a detailed reflection of your impact on others. Ask for feedback, if you feel able to, and see what patterns emerge from what you hear. Words or phrases that jar may be cause for consideration, but some of what you receive will enhance your confidence. Knowing how others are experiencing us is the first step to dialling our style up or down – and sometimes flexing it in service of those we seek to affect.
Build on this knowledge by considering where you are at your best in influencing and inspiring others. Do you excel in formal, structured settings where you can prepare set pieces and where people must sit and listen? Or do you come alive in informal settings where you must improvise and adapt? The answer won’t be binary – but the reflection is an interesting one. When we are uncomfortable, we seek to make ourselves feel better. Our focus turns inward, and we lose our capacity to pay close attention to our listeners, relying on what we know and reverting to behaviours that feel safe to us. Consciously preparing to manage our discomfort so that we may flex our style, plays a powerful part in how we guide a conversation or hold our listeners’ attention.
- How do you build trust? Your intellectual athleticism will ensure you stand out in a competitive profession, but it may not be the quality that leads to success in influencing and inspiring. In 2002, the Stereotype Content Model (Fiske et al) proposed that we are evolutionarily disposed to judge others first on whether or not they pose a threat to us and then on whether or not they have the capacity to act on their intentions. This insight translates to a dimension of presence ranging from warmth to competence. In other words, if you want to win trust – essential to securing listener attention – you must start with warmth. When your listeners feel they can trust you, they will be available to engage with you intellectually.
This awareness is crucial for success as a communicator. Moving away from the leadership models of command and control towards a collaborative ambition of inclusive engagement means that success in influencing must start from a foundation of relationship-building. Inspiration needs to centre on connection and relevance to the listener… or they will simply switch off.
To achieve this outcome, you’ll need to develop your empathy, which is a layered understanding of where another person is coming from. To understand another person, we don’t necessarily have to experience physically and emotionally what they are feeling but can ‘get it’ by thinking about what they are going through.
Ask yourself how they might perceive the particular situation in which you seek to influence them. Consider what might be troubling them about it and think about what emotions they might be feeling. Critically, ask yourself what they might need and how you can support them.
You may not need to guess – full understanding is best reached by listening. Curiosity is the cornerstone of developing empathy, relying less on Socratic questioning as a diagnostic to reach an outcome and more about open inquiry – deeper and deeper levels of understanding with the single aim of exploring another’s perspective without reaching a conclusion. Demonstrating understanding builds the trusting relationship that enables someone to be open to changing their mind. It also equips you with the information you need to plan your influencing route forward.
- Listening well is the platform for reaching a place of understanding. If we are to achieve the outcomes we seek, we need to understand what our listeners want and need. A mindset of curiosity and inquiry will give you the answers… if you listen well.
The problem with listening is that we aren’t really taught how to do it. It’s mostly an unconscious and automatic act, which allows us to ‘look’ as though we are present, when we are actually thinking about other things.
To influence and inspire through listening, you need to unlock the questions that spur others on to explore what’s on their mind. Find a way to let their imagination roam – ask them to imagine an outcome through a sensory lens. What can they see? How does it feel? What do they hear? Encourage them to give more detail by inviting them to keep talking – use ‘Tell me more about that’ and ‘Describe how that felt’.
The rules of listening are simple (but not easy). The mantra is that ‘certainty stops us from listening’. This means that the minute we feel we know what someone is going to say, or we decide what they should do… we switch off and wait until we can leap in with our own thoughts and solutions. Don’t be that person – ask another question and keep the conversation unfolding. Discipline yourself to use silence and create the space for them to feel they are worth listening to.
Whilst this is a respectful thing to do, it is also a flattery strategy ensuring the other person feels acknowledged and appreciated and, subsequently, feels a greater willingness to respond positively to our requests.
- Focus on adapting your style to win a wider audience. In 350BC, Aristotle wrote about three appeals – essentially the rhetoric that must be included in a speech to win the hearts and minds of an audience. A contemporary refresh of this concept was proposed in 2020 by Harvard Professor Frances Frei and coach Anne Morriss in their book ‘Unleashed’. The writers talk about a balance between logic, empathy and authenticity and the vital connection between these three in influencing others and winning them over. In terms of influencing style, these three qualities are rarely in balance, as we all have our own preferences and strengths in how we engage. Therefore, if our attempts to secure behavioural change are met with resistance, we often double down our efforts by increasing the intensity and volume of our own approach to the argument, when we should be adapting our style to meet with our listener and flexing to engage them in a way that makes them feel safe. This is neatly summed up by Dale Carnegie in his classic text ‘How to Win Friends and Influence people’:
“Personally, I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So, when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted.”
Have a think about your own technique and what you notice used by colleagues. Do you differ in approach? What could you adapt to create the safe conditions for them to listen easily?
- Finally, get personal. Whether your focus is on inspiring or influencing, bringing the real you to the listeners’ experience is powerful. For starters, it’s a great way to build trust by revealing your values and motivations – why you make the choices you make. Secondly, it’s a leveller – to know that the most impressive and successful amongst us struggle with the same challenges we all face is a generous and inspiring gift. Thirdly, it enables storytelling, a technique I describe as inspiring without effort as even the most mundane of experiences carries a learning point told with rich, sensory narrative that holds listeners’ attention and makes sure the message sticks.
You don’t have to reveal your innermost secrets but take small steps to allow others to get to know the person behind the position you hold.
Rudolf Laban – a founder of European modern dance – said, “Presence is connecting with the thoughts and feelings of others.” He was right – connection is the surest route to influencing and inspiring others successfully.
*Unleashed – The unapologetic leader’s guide to empowering everyone around you by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss HBR Press June 2020
* Fiske, Susan T.; Cuddy, Amy J. C.; Glick, Peter; Xu, Jun (2002). “A Model of (Often Mixed) Stereotype Content: Competence and Warmth Respectively Follow from Perceived Status and Competition” (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 82 (6): 878–902.
*Aristotle – The Art of Rhetoric Penguin Classics March 1992
*How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie Vermilion 28th edition Apr 2006
+++ By Janie Van Hool, (MA in Voice Studies) a prominent communication expert specialising in leadership development programmes and executive coaching
About Janie Van Hool
Janie Van Hool is a prominent communication expert specialising in leadership development programmes and executive coaching. Janie is the acclaimed author of The Listening Shift: Transform your organization by listening to your people and helping your people listen to you (Practical Inspiration, 2021). The book explores the power of listening, which often flies under the radar when it comes to communication in business. (she has an MA in Voice Studies), from her research into Performance Psychology at Edinburgh University