The Secrets to Becoming More Influential

Sep 9, 2013
7 Min Read

While you may like your friends just fine, you may not always listen to them.

Then how come when Oprah Winfrey or Jon Stewart – whom you have never met -- has something to say, you hang onto their every word?

It’s more than the fact that they’re celebrities. They are what John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut call “compelling people.”

These compelling people are not always celebrities, but they are people that we like and we listen to. We may envy such people, and wonder how they accomplish such a feat.

Neffinger and Kohut have set out to analyze why and how people become such influential people in a new book, “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.”

Anita Bruzzese recently interviewed them about the book:

Anita Bruzzese: You say that when we decide how we feel about someone we are making two judgments. What are they and why are they important?

John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut: When we decide how we feel about someone, we look at two critical factors: their strength and their warmth. The strength judgment is a determination about a person's skills and will to use them: "Does this person matter? Can she affect my world? Do I need to take this person seriously?" The warmth judgment considers that person's intentions: "Are we on the same team? Do we see the world the same way? Do we share the same concerns and interests?" Taken together, these two judgments are critical because they account for most of what matters to us when we size up someone we've met.

AB:  You also note that these two judgments are in “direct tension” with one another. Why?

JN& MK: Strength and warmth are in tension because nearly everything you do to boost one will diminish the other. We make these judgments largely based on nonverbal cues. Strong, assertive nonverbal signals come across as unfriendly; while warm, accommodating signals seem wimpy. For instance, if you puff out your chest and speak in a loud, insistent tone of voice, your warmth will suffer. Similarly, if you do lots of favors for someone in an attempt to be likable, you will give away your strength and run the risk of seeming like a pushover. Strength and warmth are complements, not opposites, and the trick is learning how to strike a balance between them.

AB:  People like Martin Luther King Jr. managed to master them both. Can the average person do the same?

JN & MK: It is definitely doable, but it's not so easy.  Martin Luther King, Jr. fought and won (strength) on behalf of downtrodden people (warmth), which conveys strength and warmth even before you see his humble expression or hear his powerful voice. Most of us tend to project more of one quality than the other, and often times we are not aware of small behaviors that are sending signals to the people around us.

The good news is that there are lots of different things that any of us can do to project more of either quality. If you want to master that tension, you have to learn to look objectively at what you're doing now and gain an awareness of what's enabling you to project strength or warmth and what's standing in your way. A lot of our coaching practice is based on helping people see themselves as others see them, and teaching them self-diagnosis tools they can continue to use to get better at this.

AB: Can you explain more about how body language figures into the equation?

JN & MK: When you first meet someone, you get a great deal of information about how that person feels from what you see. You learn more about the emotional state of a person through posture, facial expression, eye contact, and gestures than through words. Body language tells us if the emotion we're seeing matches up with what a person is saying.

AB: What about when communicating email? Is it possible to inject these hidden qualities into our written communications?

JN & MK: It is absolutely possible to communicate strength and warmth in writing, including in email. With every correspondence you draft, reread it and ask yourself sentence by sentence -- or in key passages, even word by word -- whether you are projecting both enough strength and enough warmth.

If you're concerned about strength, look for places to sound decisive and determined, pare down unnecessary words, or make it clear that you have done your homework. If you want to dial up the warmth, try to soften any words or phrases that could sound defensive or accusatory, and look for ways to show your reader that you share their understanding of the situation. This is a useful exercise for almost any written context.

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