Listen, acknowledge, identify: How to influence people when you don’t have authority over them

By Maria Guida

CEOs often have to try to influence professionals over whom they have no real authority: board members, business associates and colleagues who are not their direct reports, members of multifunctional teams, or anyone who might be resistant to the ideas being proposed. When faced with this challenge, how can you use your expertise, work collaboratively and build consensus to achieve the best results?

Influencing without authority is not easy. It requires understanding and diplomacy, and you can achieve it by practicing communication skills that project goodwill and respect. If you can get this right, it is more likely that others will:

  • Cooperate and take your recommended actions
  • Help you achieve your immediate and even long-range goals
  • Support your ideas and the advancement of your organization

Strategy #1: Listen actively

It is often wise to encourage your conversation partners to express themselves fully before you present your own thoughts, opinions and perceptions. People are more likely to listen when they feel that they themselves have been heard. (When writing emails, be sure you have received your readers’ input before writing anything that could be interpreted as a final decision.)

In conversations and presentations, listen actively with the following five steps:

  • Blend: Blending is any behavior that reduces the differences between you and another person. The goal is to increase rapport. People are often thinking, “Are you with me, or against me?”, so building rapport is critical. This means that you will mirror (and not mimic) your conversation partners’ tone of voice, tempo, volume, facial expressions and posture. (One behavior that you should not mirror is aggressive or hostile behavior, of course.) Give receptive signals: “Oh, yes, I see, I understand, uh-huh” and use a lot of head nodding.
  • Backtrack:  The goal of backtracking is to show that you are listening and want to understand. When you backtrack, you repeat verbatim your conversation partner’s words. Here, it is important not to paraphrase; use the exact words. This is very useful on the phone.
  • Clarify: Ask clarifying questions. Your goal is to gather as much information as possible and delay giving your own response. Clarifying questions begin with the words “why,” “how,” and “tell me about…” There are three main benefits to clarification: (1) it shows that you are patient and supportive, (2) it helps reveal any hidden agendas that your conversation partners may have, and (3) it helps an unreasonable conversation partner behave more reasonably.
  • Summarize: Your goal is to show that you have listened and understood; here, you can paraphrase. Say something like, “So, if I understand you correctly… “
  • Confirm: Your objective is to be sure that your conversation partners feel satisfied. You can ask directly, “Do you feel understood? Is there anything else?” Most conversation partners welcome hearing these surprisingly attentive questions; they will appreciate your desire to help them feel satisfied with the dialogue.

Strategy #2: Acknowledge positive intent

Positive intent is the good purpose meant to be served by any communication or behavior. Always look for positive intent in others; give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when a situation is difficult or has not turned out well (and even if your listeners have caused a problem).

Take the following three steps:

  • Find something to thank people for
  • Express appreciation for the way they have done something
  • Acknowledge any information that they may have previously lacked, and promise to keep them better informed in the future — even if it is not your job to do so.

Then say: “Thank you for___”. Here, identify the person’s positive intent, even if you have to dig deep to find it. If you truly cannot see positive intent in your conversation partner, make something up that is plausible, and blend as you do it. When you mention any positive intent that is plausible, it is very unlikely that your conversation partners will deny that this was their positive intent. Most people want to be seen in the best light and appreciate the opportunity to save face.

Verbally acknowledging positive intent in your conversation partners will help you build rapport and increase the success of your business conversations.

Strategy #3: Identify the person’s highly valued criteria

You know that criteria are the standards we use to determine whether an idea or experience is positive or negative. They are very important in conversations where differing points of view are being discussed. You can show additional respect, flexibility, and cooperation when you identify the criteria that are valued by your conversation partners. (This applies to writing, as well as spoken communication.)

Here is a simple example. You and a board member are musing over new locations for upcoming sales meetings. He might express a preference for a location that is not your favorite. You can avoid a tug of war by asking why he made that choice; this will reveal his highly valued criteria.

Obviously, if he says that a location would be fairly inexpensive, you know that he values economy. If he names another location because it would decrease distractions, you know that he values the ability to focus. If he mentions a resort that would promote relaxation and bonding, you know that he values teamwork.

This is a simplistic example, but how often do CEOs fail to take the time to search for the highly valued criteria of others?

As soon as you understand a conversation partner’s highly valued criteria, summarize the ideas verbally by saying, “So, if I understand you correctly…”

After you have received confirmation that you did understand, say, “Do you feel understood? Is there anything else?” If this type of “connecting” communication feels strange to you, remember that when you practice behaviors that take you outside your comfort zone, they become easier and easier.

Once you shed light on your partner’s highly valued criteria and express your own, you can brainstorm and prioritize together, to find a mutually satisfying plan of action.

Strategy #4: Monitor your speech

Business discussions can be challenging when one, both or all parties are feeling stressed or behaving inappropriately for any reason. Monitoring the way you speak will provide a powerful opportunity to influence relationships for the better. (The same considerations apply when you are drafting emails!)

  • Monitor your tone of voice. Your tone is a strong signal regarding the opinions you hold about your conversation partners. It reveals the truth of your feelings, which can easily “leak out”. And if those feelings are negative, this can jeopardize business relationships. People respond to tone. When your tone contradicts your words, you are sending a mixed message, and people pay attention to that. When you hear yourself sending a mixed message, acknowledge it verbally and explain it to your listeners. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry if I sound a bit rushed.”  Or “I know I sound angry. That’s because this issue is very important to me.”
  • Respond to criticism strategically. Thank people when they criticize you. When you defend yourself, it often appears to be an admission of guilt. Just say (or write): “Thank you for telling me how you feel,” or “Thank you for being honest”, or simply “Thank you.”
  • Interrupt tactfully when someone is shouting or dominating a conversation or meeting, or complaining with increasing negativity. Repeat the person’s name over and over calmly. After getting her attention, state or restate your intent.
  • Give positive reinforcement. Often, we must continue to engage in business conversations, meetings and written correspondence with people whom we perceive as “challenging.” Be on the lookout for the positive behavior that these individuals exhibit. Praise any positive behavior that you observe. When a challenging person behaves in a manner that you would like to see repeated, you might say (or write) something like, “That’s one of the things I admire about you: your ability to…” (describe the positive behavior).

When you practice and apply these communication strategies, you will help bring out the best in people and enhance your ability to influence, even with those over whom you have little or no authority.

Maria Guida works with leaders who want to develop power speaking skills to be more persuasive, productive and profitable. With her experience as an actor on Broadway, TV and film (working with Paul Newman, James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline), she works with executives to enhance their leadership presence and credibility and help them speak with passion, persuasion and pizzazz. Maria’s clients include executives at American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson. (Maria can be reached at or at 718-884-2282. Please visit