There are few things more frustrating than having something important to say but nobody wanting to listen. It’s not an uncommon problem: I often hear people irritated at not being heard by colleagues or chief executives, complaining that they don’t have the ear of policymakers and funders.
What is interesting, however, is how people respond to this problem. You might think it would prompt them to brush up their influencing skills, but a surprising number seem to view their inability to get heard as unrelated to their own skills and actually the fault of the other party. There seems to be an assumption that, if we have conveyed our message, our work is done and the responsibility then falls to the other person. If they don't listen, there’s nothing more we can do.
This is a risky mindset to adopt, because when we just blame others for our disappointments we stop learning ourselves and become resigned to the status quo. We probably all know people who have become disillusioned with work this way. Their exasperation might be understandable, but they can be hugely damaging to the morale of others, dampening the most enthusiastic initiative and (perhaps unwittingly) sabotaging success.
In the world of 24/7 news, updates and messaging, it is incredibly difficult to get heard, but there are always things we can do to strengthen our influencing skills. Here are my top three tips.
Take an interest in others
If people are not listening to you, try listening to them. Studies show that effective influence is reciprocal: we are more likely to be influenced by people who are influenced by us. So get to know the other person and look at how you can help them, and it is more likely that they will then take an interest in what you have to say.
Remember that everyone has their own personal map of the world
If you want to influence someone, do it from within their worldview. Whether you agree with it or not, trying to persuade someone that their worldview is wrong is unlikely to be successful.
Don’t focus just on facts and logic
When influencing, we tend to focus on getting our evidence right and having a robust logic to our argument. However, if there is one thing recent history has demonstrated, it is that people are often influenced by people whose grasp on facts and logic is at best shaky. Facts are important, but people listen to people who they feel are like them, who they think will have their best interests at heart and who they can trust. Instead of focusing on proving you are right, think about how you can become an ally and work with them to mutual benefit.
It is said that if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist. Given that the sector has more than its fair share of idealists, it probably follows that we have more than a few cynics as well. Charities deal with some of the most difficult, intractable problems, so working in the sector is never going to be easy. Setbacks are part of the job and, rather than a reason to resign ourselves to cynicism, they should be opportunities for us to learn and come back stronger.
Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator