If you’re like most people, you chronically underestimate your influence over others. When researchers ask people how much they think others pay attention to them, think about them, and would agree to do things for them and then compare these estimates to objective indicators of how much others actually pay attention to them, think about them, and would agree to do things for them, people’s subjective perceptions tend to be underconfident compared to reality. Even people in positions of power can underestimate their influence by incorrectly assuming those they have power over feel more comfortable challenging them or brushing off their suggestions than their subordinates actually feel.
The blind spot people have for their own influence can have important consequences. Failing to recognize the influence you have can lead to missed opportunities to spearhead change efforts, ask for things you deserve, and show up in support of causes you care about. In other cases, it can lead you to say or do things haphazardly, leading you to influence others unintentionally — sometimes in ways you wish you hadn’t.
This tendency towards underconfidence can also lead people to needlessly (and endlessly) search for ways to gain influence — when what they really need is to get better at recognizing the influence they already have, but may not be wielding effectively. Below are three suggestions from my recent book, not for gaining influence, but for becoming more mindful of the influence you have already but don’t always see, so you can begin to use your latent influence more wisely.
Seeing your influence over others.
One reason we fail to recognize the influence we have over others is that we simply don’t see it. When we look out at the world, we do so through our own two eyes. This means we see all the things that other people do that impact us and the ways in which those other people impact one another. But the critical thing missing from our default perspective on the world is ourselves. We fail to see the ways in which we may be contributing to a potentially problematic dynamic.
To get better at seeing the influence your words and actions have on others, you want to practice getting out of your own head so that you aren’t confined to the limited vantage point we occupy every day where we can’t actually see the things we’re doing that others may be responding to.
One useful exercise is to spend 10 minutes visualizing a salient workplace interaction or meeting you had recently from a neutral third party perspective. Pretend you are a coach reviewing the tape of his or her team’s last game — except the game you are reviewing is a particularly tense meeting you had with a colleague or colleagues. How would someone observing this interaction from the outside interpret the dynamics at play? What were you saying and doing that the other person or people may have been responding to?
Taking less than 10 minutes every few months or so to reflect on a recent argument from a third-party perspective has been shown to maintain relationship satisfaction in couples, possibly because it gives each party awareness into their own role in perpetuating the conflict.
Feeling your influence over others.
Another reason people tend to make mistakes about the influence they have over others is that they guess how the things they say and do make others feel, rather than asking and confirming that their presumptions are correct.
To understand our influence over others, we must not only see the ways in which our actions impact others, but we also then need to be able to understand how those actions actually feel to others. We must find a way to understand how they are experiencing our presence, words, and actions.
Unfortunately, while it is widely believed that to better understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings, we should simply try harder to think about things from their perspective, this intuition is false. Try as we might to take someone else’s perspective to figure out what they really thought of something we said, when we do so we never actually get out of our own heads and are left guessing, often inaccurately.
This is why researchers have found that to truly understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, it’s not enough to try to take their perspective, we need to actually get perspective. Getting perspective entails getting exposed to new information. An extremely straightforward, — and effective — way to get perspective is to simply ask someone what they are thinking or feeling. Even though people don’t always tell us exactly what they are thinking, or even necessarily know how they truly feel about something, talking to another person gets you out of the echo chamber of your own head. It allows you to base your reading of someone else’s mind on more than just your own assumptions about them.
Experiencing your influence over others.
Lastly, a major reason people tend to underestimate their influence is that they fail to test it out. We don’t say things unless we are sure others are likely to be receptive, and don’t ask for things unless we are sure people will say yes. But our judgments of receptivity and the likelihood of agreement are both biased and inaccurate. If we were to test out our influence a little more, even in small ways, we would quickly see how much more influence we have than we thought.
In my own research, I have seen this to be true. When my colleagues and I have instructed participants to make small requests of other people, they are regularly surprised at how willing others are to agree — and thus the influence they have when they make a simple request.
In other research by myself and others, working up the nerve to give someone a compliment or express your gratitude means more to people than we think.
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For these reasons, one of the quickest and most effective ways to recognize your latent influence is to test it out. Rather than bending over backwards to avoid asking for a simple favor, go ahead and ask. Rather than keeping your gratitude or admiration of a colleague to yourself, go ahead and tell them. You will quickly learn that your words have impact — more than you might’ve previously thought.
The experience you gain from testing out your influence in these little ways, when combined with the tips described above for getting out of your own head and getting perspective, will not only help you develop a muscle for using your influence more, but also for using it more mindfully.
by Vanessa Bohns
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