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Influence, but don't manipulate

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Have you ever tried to change a co-worker's mind and failed miserably?

Not only is it frustrating, it may hurt your career.

But Rob Jolles, an expert on influence, says you can help people stop procrastinating and make a decision. The key is asking the right questions.

First, you must get the person to admit he has a problem. This requires some diplomacy because you don't want to launch into your theory of the problem and its solutions.

Jolles suggests avoiding the word “problem” and instead use terms like “concerns” or “challenges” that won't put a person on the defensive.

During this stage you also should listen carefully and ask questions, such as “What concerns do you have about this project not being done on time?”

“You've got to be able to think on your feet,” Jolles says. “You want to keep asking questions that will keep the conversation going. You need to be patient.”

That means you can't jump in with a just-do-it attitude. Instead you must get a person to think about the what-if scenarios of not taking action.

He says his research shows that 4 of 5 people admit that something in their life requires a change, but they also admit that they're not doing anything about it.

The third stage of the process involves using more subtle questions to get a person to look at the issue as a whole: “So, overall, what do you think the ramifications for the future of this department will be of not meeting the project deadline?” you might ask.

The reason you try to get a person to see the long-term effect is because “people don't generally fix small problems. They fix big ones,” Jolles says.

Jolles, author of “How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence Without Manipulation,” says he doesn't want workers to believe this method is underhanded.

“Influence is often associated with unethical behavior because people may feel like they're being pushed into a situation that benefits someone else,” he says. “But the difference is the intent. You truly believe influencing someone else is for the better.”

Another key to successfully influencing someone is to understand that it's OK for the other person to voice objections, Jolles says.

“Just because someone is pushing back doesn't mean it's a bad thing,” he says.

He offers some ways to handle objections when they come up:

• Clarify the objection. A colleague may not state his real grievance in the beginning.

The true reason for his displeasure may be embarrassing, or he may become confrontational when the conversation begins. Try asking questions about specific concerns so you fully understand.

• Acknowledge it. Show empathy.

Let the other person see you understand his objection before you move to correct the misunderstanding.

• Move on. If you feel you've addressed the complaint but the person keeps bringing it up, confirm you've addressed it and move on.

Finally, Jolles says anyone who fears crossing the ethical line between manipulation and influence can ask the question: “Am I seeking to help the other person — or just myself?”

Write Anita Bruzzese in care of USA TODAY/Gannett, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22108. For a reply, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Twitter: @AnitaBruzzese.

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