Updated: May 5, 2020
You know how difficult it is to get a dog into the vet's office in that moment when he realizes that he's about to enter the vet's office? People are similar. We resist change and we resist that which we do not like. It can be hard to influence human beings, especially during a crisis.
As the United States deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a lot of good examples of government officials and companies communicating during the crisis—we are also seeing a lot of missteps. This is not a commentary on politicians; it is about being an influencer.
Influencer is a buzz word that I use a lot as a Gen Z whisperer (that is a friend’s term for the work I do guiding executive teams on generational differences in the workplace). An influencer is someone we are more likely to admire, believe and follow. In a crisis, why are we more apt to take the advice of one person and not follow the directive of another?
I am about to publish a book about communicating and influencing people during a crisis called, Communicating During a Crisis: Influencing Others When the Stakes Are High. I am a Doctor of Psychology and I have spent 30 years as a communications executive at major media companies, so crisis communications perfectly combines my two passions—business and psychology. At the most fundamental level, effectively communicating during a crisis is about people being able to influence people.
One of the key tenets of influencing others is understanding them so you can speak to them and not at them. Understanding people makes YOU more effective at dealing with differences. It is also helpful to the other person, because when we feel understood, our defenses go down, we are more open to different ideas, and we are more open to making a change.
Big companies understand their customers, because they interact with them daily. Nonprofits understand their donors, because they have reems of data to tell them who gives money, when they give and why the give. Politicians understand their constituents, because they live in the cities and states they are representing. Understanding people on a macro level can be a lot easier to do than it is on a micro level when we are one-on-one, as we are with a co-worker or a family member!
Following is a helpful process for understanding people. Let’s imagine your co-worker or your sibling did something that you think is moronic and you are angry, because you know it would have gone better if it was done differently. How do you handle it?
Stop assuming the worst about someone and what they have said or done. Definitely do not assume that you know why they did it.
Ask them about it and be open to their rationale. Ask what they meant by what they said. Ask why they took the action they took. Be genuinely curious about who they are as a person and what makes them tick.
Also, listen to what they are saying when they answer your question. Do not do that thing where you are formulating your own response in your mind and not really listening to what the person is saying.
If you ask why from curiosity, as opposed to asking it from a place of anger and aggression, you will elicit an answer that helps you understand the person better. When you understand them better, you have set the stage to be more influential.
Excerpted from my book, “Communicating During a Crisis: Influencing Others When the Stakes Are High,” for sale on Amazon in paperback and e-book format.
Joanna Dodd Massey, Ph.D., MBA has a doctorate in psychology with an emphasis in transpersonal psychology. As a business leader with more than 30 years in corporate America managing crisis communications and brand reputation, Dr. Massey uses her business experience and psychological background to guide companies and executive teams through massive change.