Can you develop your soft power?
Updated: Mar 26, 2021
To get things done leaders have always relied on their skills of influence and persuasion – these skills are in even greater demand now as modern management structures can leave leaders without positional authority.
Soft power can be used in a variety of ways: to build coalitions to drive an idea forward; to nurture collaborative working partnerships; to overcome objections to a decision you want to make. We probably all know someone who can do these things, who has consummate influencing skills, for example, a wonderful sales person, a great customer services agent, or a persuasive politician. Their style can seem so natural that it feels impossible to emulate. But here are some ideas on how you can improve your own soft power.
The first thing is to set realistic expectations. You will not become ‘the great persuader’ overnight, but through experimentation you can grow your skills. This involves moving out of your comfort zone, trying new approaches and learning what works for you and has the most impact. That’s easier said than done but your experiments can start small until you feel able to take more risks. Secondly, a lot of people want to be more persuasive simply to get their own way. In any long-term relationship this win-lose mentality is unlikely to work, instead it can create conflict. You will be more influential if you aim for a win-win approach where both parties get something out of a discussion or agreement.
There are three aspects of soft power to think about:
Have clear goals
Your efforts to persuade others should be built on a clear view of what you want to achieve. This involves clarifying your end goal and your mini-goals along the way, such as what you want to get out of a particular meeting. By preparing for an important meeting and thinking about what it’s for, you will significantly increase the quality of the outcomes you get.
Be transparent and direct
Having a clear goal enables you to be more precise in your dealings with others, and this makes it easier to be more direct with them. Too often people put together confusing and long-winded arguments, and never get to the point of actually stating what they want. Being clear and more direct, without being abrupt, makes discussions a lot easier.
Summarise and document agreements
During complex negotiations it helps to be clear about what has been agreed at key stages, what the next steps are and who is responsible for any actions. Taking the lead in summarising and documenting these points establishes you as a purposeful and reliable partner – someone who can be trusted.
Anticipate your counterpart’s perspective
Another thing to clarify is the perspective of the other parties you are dealing with. What are they looking to get out of this meeting? If you are dealing with different parties, do they have different interests? If this is the case then segment your audience as you look for win-win solutions. For example, are some of your counterparts sympathetic to your point of view whereas others are indifferent and only a few oppose you. Here it may make sense to target your efforts, perhaps first bringing the neutrals on board to build a coalition. Trying to think things through from another person’s perspective takes a bit of time but can yield important insights to help you hit the right note in your dealings with them.
Avoid a sense of superiority
Confidence may seem like an innate characteristic, one you either have or you don’t. Some people have that ability to think quickly in the moment and come up with the right answers. But keep in mind that this approach is not always persuasive. Some counterparts can feel steamrollered by someone who has all the answers and if their confidence comes through as superiority this is also off-putting.
Principles, preparations and practice
You will feel more confident if you are operating from a position of authority. For example, is your perspective reasonable, is it principled? Have you gathered any facts or data that are relevant? Have you prepared well so that the key elements of your case are clear in your own mind? Careful preparation means you are taking yourself seriously, which is essential if you want to be taken seriously by others.
Practice helps hugely in building confidence. Therefore, if you are going into a situation for the first time you may want to rehearse or role play with a colleague before the meeting. This can also highlight any counter arguments you may come across and helps you become more adept in presenting your case.
Seek out the high ground
Another way to develop confidence is to become a thought leader on a topic or problem. Write an article on your experience to date and share it with your network – this will help you think through your point of view and establish you as someone who can be respected for their stance – in this situation you start the meeting from a known position of strength.
Overcome disagreement and find common ground
One consequence of feeling confident is that, if necessary, you feel bold enough to disagree with your counterpart. Disagreement can be an important part of establishing your credibility and setting out a distinct point of view. It gives you a chance to establish your specific needs in a discussion or negotiation. Disagreements will not derail the discussion if they are done within the context of the search for a win-win solution.
After a disagreement it is important to re-establish common ground – some aspect of your discussion that you can both agree on. This may require returning to a higher order principle or value that you are both working towards – for example you may both be working to raise product quality or team productivity. With this established you may be able to move forward again.
If a disagreement is protracted and is souring a working relationship then it may be important to agree that the relationship needs a re-set. In this situation you may need to be brave to call this out, but in all probability the other party is thinking the same thing and with the need for a re-set established, the search for solutions can begin.
Invoke a spirit of reciprocity
You can gain confidence by building a stake in a relationship. One way to do this is to offer to invest time or take the lead on a piece of work that is of mutual benefit as a gesture of goodwill. Ultimately you want your counterpart to return the favour, but by taking the initiative you can act with a confidence and freedom that is likely to win hearts and minds.
With clear goals in mind and confidence in your position, persuasive communication will come naturally. That said, there are a number of communication points you can think about.
Unattractive features of a communication style are aggression, defensiveness and fixed opinions. Try instead to focus on flexibility, curiosity and openness. Be passionate if it’s a topic you feel strongly about, but modulate your delivery so you don’t overpower your counterpart. Look for clues in how they are reacting – is your approach working, do you need to adjust and take a different tack or set a different tone? Don’t be afraid to re-set the conversation by asking for feedback and then signalling a new approach by saying, ‘OK I see I’m not being clear, let me try this a different way….’.
Remember communication is a two-way process
Active listening is a key part of influencing. If you show that you hear the other person’s point of view, they will give you a deeper level of attention. Techniques like positive body language, clarifying questions and summaries will demonstrate that you appreciate what the person is saying. It is also important to be aware of the subliminal messages that you typically send out in a meeting as these will affect reactions to you, if you lack this level of self-awareness, think about the ways you can get feedback from a trusted colleague.
Open dialogue may lead to a shift in your position that you are happy to make, but if you disagree with the other party you will need to think how best to respond. You may choose to ‘reframe’ their argument, where you say ‘I understand what you are telling me, but can we look at this from a different perspective?’ Alternatively, you may want to send a signal that you are going to disagree - ‘I understand your perspective, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree…’. At this point you will have to find some common ground to move things forward again.
This advice may seem unduly tentative, and there is a place for a more forceful approach, but this should not be your default style as you don't want to engender any unnecessary conflict.
Storytelling is very much in vogue at the moment, but what does it actually mean? I would highlight two essential elements of storytelling. The first is to use anecdotes and case studies alongside any data or information you share. People are more likely to remember the story you have told than the facts you have given, which is what makes stories so powerful. The other point is to bring your personal experiences into your arguments, these will carry your convictions and emotions and so are more likely to be persuasive.
Use your team
If the situation allows, you can be more persuasive by harnessing the power of different voices in a conversation. This provides variety of tone, experience and insight and also gives people thinking time while others are speaking.
Practice your ‘elevator speech’ to get your counterpart’s attention with a quick overview. Don’t think you have to cover every detail because, if they are interested, they will ask questions. It is particularly important when influencing senior leaders that you are succinct and to the point as they are likely to have limited time. If you want to use a case study to strengthen your argument, think about using the STAR approach to get to the point quickly:
Situation – give a quick summary of the context
Task – explain what needed to be done
Action – describe the steps you took
Result – summarise the outcomes that were achieved.
So, there is quite a lot to think about to develop your soft power. but if you prepare well and are clear about what you want, then you are more than half-way there. Working with a coach can help you focus on those influencing skills that you want to prioritise.