What It Takes to Have Prosocial Influence
This post was co-authored by Joe Navarro and Abbie Maroño.
Influence. We all seek it and need it at one time or another in varying degrees, but how to achieve it? For some, influence is about employing highly staged tactics that often reek of manipulation, such as creating false scarcity (“Only one left!”) or by hiring an aging, slow-moving actor to reassure an elderly individual that it is OK to take out a reversible mortgage loan on their home (social validation).
As unctuous as those tactics are, they do work, as shown by researchers and psychologists. However, there are better ways to appeal to each other, to be influential, without being sneaky or appearing to be manipulative.
For most of us, influence is about cooperation, not manipulation. As a species, we thrive through harmonious social interaction and mutual gain far greater than we do through exploitation and selfish benefit. It is based on effective and reliable techniques that are pro-social, validate the needs and concerns of others, and contribute to psychological comfort—what humans primarily seek. They are simple but powerful, and they are easy to remember: They are called the Six V’s of Influence.
Cave paintings from 30,000 years ago and the artwork in the Sistine chapel are there for one purpose—to impress and influence visually. We are influenced not just by the artistry of others and their accomplishments but by the vivid array of beauty around us. We are seduced by the delicacy of a bouquet of flowers, a sculpture, a gorgeous wedding gown hand-embroidered to demonstrate the skill of the seamstress, and the exquisite movements of a solo rock climber on the sheer surface of a granite rock 1,800 feet up. The list is endless. We are influenced primarily visually.
Pilots don’t have to wear white shirts with epaulets to aviate, and yet around the world, that is what they wear to inform and impress upon (influence) us that they are competent, well-trained aviators. How we present, look, groom, dress, and carry ourselves matters—this is where first impressions begin, and those impressions are immediate and hard to shake. Our actions are very much visual; they attest to our attitude, emotions, level of caring or appreciation, sentiments, and interests, as well as our willingness to help others. If your goal is to impress, start with the visual. Start with yourself, work on that which others will see, for there is where influence begins.
From an early age, we are influenced by the tone, timbre, smoothness, lilt, warmth, speed, gentleness, cadence, and volume of voices—what is called prosody. A calming voice can soothe us when we are stressed, unwell, anxious, or worried. You can lower someone’s heart rate with a calming voice. You can hear the pain or joy in the way we say, “I love you.” Our voices can convey indifference, distrust, sarcasm, and even hatred, to be sure; more importantly, our voices can convey interest, kindness, love, caring, appreciation, recognition, awareness, surprise, enthusiasm, and generosity, as well as tenderness.
We vocally communicate our true sentiments, and we can comfort others or aggravate a situation just with our vocal tone. We can offer enthusiasm or indifference, all with our voices. We have control over our voices; it is up to us to use them effectively to influence others in the same way a musician crafts a song so that the vocal intonation contributes to the sentiment of the lyrics.
Unquestionably, words have a powerful influence on us. From hearing a fatherly, “Go on, you can do it,” to the vastly more eloquent, “Once more unto the breach,” by a Shakespearian king. Words can inspire, educate, open our minds, make us dream of better things, or they can weigh us down, keep us in the dark, trick us, or make us distrustful of others.
Words matter, and how we deploy them, when we deploy them, and in what manner we deploy them makes a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. The words of Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial or those of Nelson Mandela decrying the repugnant injustice of apartheid in South Africa from a lonely and cold prison cell were not just moving, but they also influenced great change.
Words can serve as crowbars, but they must be used wisely. Words, the verbal aspect of influence, when combined with the visual and the vocal, can be extremely powerful and influential. Ronald Reagan’s emotional plea in front of the Brandenburg Gate dividing East and West Germany, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” is considered a perfect example of the power of the verbal, the vocal, and the visual—arguably, this was the catalyst for the demise of the Soviet empire and for German reunification.
In the social sciences, valence refers to the affective quality of a stimulus. That is, the pleasantness or unpleasantness of a “stimulus,” be it an object, a place, or an encounter with someone else. On a scale, it can range from sour to joyous—empty to fulfilled. Valence is how we feel in the moment and its effect on us after we leave—contented or disheartened. In essence, it is a measure of sorts of our influence on others—good or bad.
People often talk about influence as if how we make others feel or how trustworthy we seem had no effect or relevance when it comes to influencing—it does. Over time, social pruning takes place precisely because of valence—the less harmony there is, the less we like. Little wonder, then, that as we grow older, we have fewer but better friends. A positive valence contributes to people wanting to be with us, to listen to us, and share with us their most intimate thoughts. That is the essence of influence.
It doesn’t matter how fancy the gift is or how many objects are on that rotating mobile; after a while, babies and children grow bored with their toys. Why? Humans need novelty—we thrive where there is variety. We travel, we like picture books, we click needlessly on so many things that are just “clickbait” on our devices because of the human need for variety and novelty.
If you want to influence others, do what great teachers, instructors, and professors do: engage our need for novelty. Use a variety of wide-ranging examples, stories, photographs, displays, visitors, speakers, etc., to get the attention of others and to make your point. Use storytelling to give that extra variety to an otherwise average event. Humans seek variety; we will focus on it longer and appreciate it when it is presented to us.
If you want to impress others, if you want to influence them, validate their experiences, their joys, and pleasures, as well as their tragedies and hurts, no matter how small. From the child handing you a drawing to hang on the fridge, to the person who arrives upset that traffic and parking was a hassle, to the parent wanting to share a picture of their son’s graduation—validation works wonders when it comes to influencing. Validation is another way of saying: I care, I am interested, you are important, I can empathize. Just that alone can do so much to influence others.
Validation is powerful; we can be sure of that because we know how it feels when we are not validated by others, be they parents, teachers, or those in authority. When I look at the sexual abuse debacle at the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics, I see abject failure to validate these vulnerable young women at every level.
Refusing to validate is the equivalence of indifference, and it is used by those who want to do us harm.
Do you want to move people, inspire them, make them treasure you? Go out and validate them. Whatever they have achieved, however small, show them that you are not indifferent, that they matter, that you care. Validation costs an ounce of your time, but the reward is paid back in pounds of influence. Conclusion There is no secret to influence, honest, heartfelt influence. It is the bringing together of those traits that provide psychological comfort—it is that simple. Nothing needs to be contrived; no urgency needs to be created; no artifice is required. If you want to influence others, present your best self, utilize those best qualities you possess, create psychological comfort that others will feel and come away from knowing they have had a positive experience. That is the quintessence of true influence. The six V's of influence serve as a reminder of what has been proven to work best. * * * Abbie Maroño is the director of Behavioural Research in Communications (BRINC) and is on the faculty at the University of Northampton (UK).
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