To Influence Others, Learn a Foreign Language

Influencing is a critical skill, but it is often difficult.  Research shows it’s the biggest leadership challenge most senior executives face.  (For more, see Leaders’ Top Challenges Tie Back to Effective Relationships.)

Here’s a tip that will help in most situations.

Learn a foreign language.

I don’t mean Spanish or Chinese.  I’m talking about learning how to understand and communicate effectively with someone – anyone – other than myself.

Most of us know only one language:  Itsallaboutme.  And we’re each fluent in our own unique dialect of this language.  We often forget that others speak in their own different dialect of this same language.  So we tend not to really understand each other – especially if accents are thick.

Putmyselfinyourshoes is the language that bridges the gap between me and the other person.  To communicate effectively, one of us needs to become bi-lingual.  And if I am trying to understand and influence someone, like it or not, the onus is on me.

Here’s an example.  A financial services executive we interviewed recently described how he was trying to influence the head of a different division in his company to devote resources to work on his client project.  He knew that not getting more resources would likely result in poorer client service, a disappointed client CEO, possibly lost future company revenue, a hit to his reputation, and a lower commission check.

In order to positively influence the division head, this executive needs to apply his Putmyselfinyourshoes language skills.

He needs to start thinking in a bi-lingual way even before approaching this person.  If he thinks, for example, the division head will care that the client CEO is disappointed or pulls business back, then he may find a mutual interest for solving this problem.  And suppose this executive knows the division head is a “get to the point” communicator who is a quick decision-maker and who tends to focus on “so what” and “what are we going to do about it?”

The executive might prepare for a bi-lingual discussion with the division head by listing a few points to cover in a BRIEF meeting:

  1. We have a problem.  (The client wants better service…)
  2. Here’s what I recommend we do to fix it.  Your reaction?
  3. Here are the timing and specific next steps we need to take.  Ok?

Having brushed up on his Putmyselfinyourshoes, the leader will be better able to hear and understand the division head’s Itsallaboutme dialect – even if the conversation doesn’t go according to plan.

Is it time for you to get serious about becoming bi-lingual?

Are you facing a situation where you are having a difficult time influencing?  If you can’t answer the following questions, there’s most likely a language barrier.

  • What does the other person(s) care about?
  • What’s their preferred communication style?
  • How do they make decisions?  How are they rewarded?
  • Do they know you are genuinely concerned about them and what’s important to them?  (Without this, skills only get you so far.)
  • Why would they want to make the change you’re proposing?

It is never too late to learn a new language.  But the longer you wait, the harder it gets.