How to be a Better Influencer

“Some people are just more naturally empathic than others” the CEO brusquely informed me. “It's not personal, it's business” he went on quoting that bundle of joy Donald Trump. “They should know what's good for them, and do what I suggest. Why should I have to influence them or show empathy?”

The CEO pushed back his chair as if our session were over. His company was struggling. Several key staff had recently departed and were working for a competitor. He still insisted that empathy was not something he needed to do, and he was perfectly capable of influencing his team. It was they who needed to change, not him.

You've met someone like this I'm sure. And you're wondering how I'm going to suggest that they change right? But no, there is a twist here. How do you influence them to have more empathy and more easily influence others?

You see, it's terrific to have someone like that CEO in your life. You are not like him. You care. You show a genuine concern, and there are only a few people who, well, they simply don't deserve your love and respect.

How do you show empathy for someone and influence them when they don't “do” empathy? Especially when you know that they really need to “do” empathy so that they can be a better influencer.

You’ll recall from the triangle of influence that in order to influence someone, we need to link what we want them to do to the resources it will cost them and the benefits that they will gain for themselves by doing it. (If you need a reminder about the triangle of influence, I’d suggest you jump over there now and come back afterwards.)


I Colour I Listen – Developing Active Listening Skills and Empathy

Trust - empathy - influence and leadership

Empathy develops Trust. And Trust enables us to Influence others. When we Influence others, we lead them.

For the influencer, we are left with a causal chain:

  • Without empathy how will you know what is important for them?
  • Without you showing empathy, how am I going to trust you?
  • If I don’t trust you, how are you going to influence me?
  • If you don’t influence me, how are you going to lead me?

To be a better influencer, we really need to know how to have and show empathy.

I wrote a short while back about the usefulness of empathy and how it differs from sympathy. The difference is huge. Sympathy is passive; empathy is active. (Pop over to that article if you need a refresher. It does a great job of describing the difference—and how empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection.)

In short, if I am to influence someone, they need to have some level of trust in me. To trust me, I will need to have and have shown, empathy with them. That is, I need to identify with them.

Let us first consider how we can have and show empathy with someone. Then how we build trust with that person, and lastly, how we can use this to be a better influencer.

But before that, let me share the dictionary definition of empathy so that we agree on what it is:


“the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Imagine for a moment that I am sitting opposite you and what I am about to share with you is both critically important and valuable for you. You sit up a little taller, lean your head forward and focus your eyes on me.

You carefully watch every nuance of expression, listening attentively to every word. Nodding appropriately as you take in and understand each point I make.

Bring to mind two people in your life that you have known for some time.

  • The first person is someone with whom you have a good, strong and close relationship. You trust them to be in your corner, to support you and, they understand you well.
  • The second individual is someone with whom you have a more distant relationship. You know them reasonably well.Well enough that you know that you don't completely trust them. They would save themselves over you in a tight spot.

Have you these two people in mind?

I'm going to predict that you identify more readily and openly with the first person. You understand and appreciate the way they think and act. You might not always agree with them, but even then, you accept their perspective and can see it from their point of view.

With the second individual, you believe that they just don't “get” you. They can be cold and dispassionate. They might have some odd perspectives on life and can be forceful in putting their point of view across, especially when you seem to be at odds with them.

How did I do?

When someone shows empathy with you (as the first person in your scenario does), you are much more trusting of them and more likely to allow them to influence you. Why? Because you know that they would only influence you for something that is beneficial for you. Your brain produces oxytocin (known as the ‘love’ drug, and trust is a form of love) making you feel good and receptive to that individual.

When someone fails to show empathy towards you, you don't trust them as much, and, you are naturally more defensive about their influence over you. Your anterior cingulate cortex in the brain is sending out alert messages and increase production of the stress hormone, cortisol and noradrenaline. Your flight or fight response is primed and ready.

And you’ll know from experience that some people make you feel good about you (and them), while others just rub you up the wrong way.

In his book, “Focus”, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman describes the importance of “Other Focus” or how well we attune to people.

“Our empathy allows us to understand how people perceive things, how they feel, and what we can do to help them be at their best. And tuning into others this way provides the basis for skill in competencies like motivating employees, persuasion and influence, negotiation and conflict resolution, and — increasingly important – teamwork and collaboration.”

How do you increase empathy for others?

Think of someone, in a work context, whom you need to influence.

How well do you know them already? Do you know specifically what is important for them in their life? What truly motivates them? Do you understand what they think about their work? Their workload? Their colleagues? What do they need and want to be more successful?

To learn more about anyone we need to observe and listen and ask questions.

When I first start coaching or mentoring someone, I’ll simply start asking questions. To find out what motivates someone, I’ll begin with “What makes you laugh, and what makes you cry?” or something similar that gets the same answer.

But what if you are not sure if you have a strong enough relationship already to be so forthright? Observe, listen and ask questions.

Really listen. Some will call this “active listening”. Devout your complete attention to that person when they are speaking. Look at them when they are speaking – in a business context, look right between the eyes. We’re not staring here, and yes, you can glance away occasionally. You’ll know when you’ve made eye contact when you know their eye colour.

I have a terrific little exercise and template that you can use to develop the skill of observing and listening – it’s called “I colour – I Listen”. You can download it from my website now and use it to practice later. Choose some friendly targets first and progress to your boss when you feel ready.

As you’re listening attentively, notice their body language, notice the key words that they use, especially value words.

Ask questions to dig deeper about something they have said or to find out more. Assume nothing. Ask specific questions to get a better understanding of their thinking and how they feel. When you show interest in someone, you create a closer relationship with them.

You are demonstrating that you care about the other person and show a keen interest in what they are thinking and how they feel. That’s having and showing empathy.

Are there any downsides of being empathic?

Some individuals just don’t like you getting close to them. They won’t open up for a myriad of possible reasons. Respect that and keep an appropriate distance – by doing so, you’re actually showing empathy.

There are occasional downsides, in my experience, of being empathic. Some people will take advantage of you. I don’t think that it is possible to have and show empathy with someone if you don’t actually care about them. There are people who will go through the motions of listening actively and so on, but they don’t actually take it on board because they are so full of themselves that there is no space for you.

The trouble, I have found, is that I can care a lot about another person whilst it was only true for them for a season. Like you, I have best friends I made at school and university only to never hear from them again. When you care for others, you are likely to be showing your own vulnerabilities too, and whilst you never would take advantage of that, they might. And, you could get hurt by it.

But tell me, what do you do when someone hurts you emotionally? That’s right, you’ll naturally increase the distance between you, and be a little more guarded with that person.

Empathy is valued currency. It allows us to create bonds of trust, it provides insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; and helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our “people acumen” and it informs our decisions. When someone shows empathy toward you, you begin to trust them. As that empathy continues, that trust builds.

And trust is the foundation of effective influence…

You cannot repeatedly break trust with people and continue to influence them. It simply doesn’t happen.

Trust is your bankroll

With trust, you are solvent. Without it, you are bankrupt.

When you are trusted, you have a thick bankroll of crisp bills. Every time you act inconsistently with your professed values, or break a promise, you spend some of those crisp bills. When the bankroll is gone, so is the trust that others have in you. At this point, your personal appeals or persuasive arguments cannot buy back that trust. Once lost, trust, and the personal credibility and empathy it took to gain it, may take years to regain.

Why does trust help you influence?

When we trust someone, we are choosing to be influenced by them even though we are uncertain that the choice we are making is absolutely the best possible choice for us. When we are trusting another person, there is a slight delay in making the decision as we weigh up how much we actually trust them before we choose to trust without complete certainty.

On the other hand, when we do not trust them, or choose not to trust them in this circumstance, then we are defending ourself against the possible consequences and shifting the burden by re-defining the task to suit our own agenda – even avoiding the task entirely.

reducing uncertainty through trust

Reducing uncertainty through trust or through shifting the burden by redefining the task (aka not doing what was asked of you)

Of course, when we don’t trust someone else in a given situation, then that person will immediately lose trust in us. Then both parties re-define the task to suit their own agendas and we end with no-one trusting each other and nothing gets done.

For you to influence someone, they have to trust you to a certain extent. How much trust you need depends on how they perceive their risk in choosing to trust you.

With trust, you can influence someone. Without it, you cannot.

The basis of good relationships and trust is empathy.

Think about those two individuals again, the individual who shows empathy towards you and the person who does not. Something you'll notice is that you know much more about the first person than the second. You know some, if not all, of their vulnerabilities. Furthermore, you know that they know about their own fragilities, and they are quite open about them with you. Are you brave enough to really get in touch with our own?

Empathy makes us feel loved (through the production of oxytocin in the brain). It comforts us to believe that someone else understands our pain, our suffering and that we are not alone.

And we feel a natural affinity towards those people who show empathy for us. When we see someone who has been empathic towards us, we will feel that same reassurance, that same love, that same trust as the oxytocin is once again produced in the brain.

You know from your own standpoint that those individuals who show empathy towards you can more easily influence you.

It follows then, does it not, that if you wish to more easily influence others, then you should show empathy towards them.

Professional Leadership Caddy

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

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I combine time-tested systems, behavioural neuroscience and psychology research and practical tools with the accountability and guidance of a 1:1 coach and mentor to UnLock your Talent, UnStuck Your Potential and UnLeash Your Performance.

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