Know Yourself To Influence Others

(5 Minute Read)

You might think, “I don’t care what people think about me.” Actually, you do. And you should. Not to seek their approval, that’s a waste of time. You don’t need others to like you to influence them, but you do need to know what they think of you, so you can deal with it. This means that, first, you must know yourself.

If you are going to influence people and lead them, how they see you has a major effect on how they respond to you. You may be very focused and driven to accomplish your goals, but if the people you need on your side see your drive and focus as coming from a malignant self-interest, they may interpret your desires as a threat to their well-being and work against you. If they see you as aloof or clueless, they may interpret that as a lack of direction and use it to manipulate you or just leave and find a different opportunity. In either case, people will be reluctant to follow your lead.

To influence any person or group, they must trust in your ability to help them satisfy their needs. So, wrap your head around the fact that you must be aware of what people think and figure out how others see you. I repeat: not so that you can seek their approval, but so you can direct their perception and focus to your advantage.

Being able to direct the perception of others has always been a fascination of mine. As a performing magician, I drew the audience’s attention to where I wanted it by using physical objects. That is, I made people look at one hand while I did the trick with the other, so that a coin would appear to vanish. I had perfected the art of making people watch what I wanted them to watch, and thus, see what I wanted them to see. But it was not until I began my legal career that I realized the secret to deliberately directing people’s attention in order to persuade. You must first know yourself.

Here’s a clue: you can’t direct anyone else’s focus until you stop focusing on what people think of you.

During my very first jury trial in November of 1985, I was prosecuting a man for stealing a motorcycle. My main witness to the crime was a convicted criminal, so his credibility was sketchy at best. I had tried a number of mock trials in law school and had earned high marks, but this was my first trial where real-life stakes were involved. I was nervous about having all eyes on me, and concerned about what the judge, jury, and other lawyers might think of my performance. Mostly, I was obsessed with whether or not I looked competent.

When I made my closing argument, I asked the jury to convict, and returned to my seat at the counsel table. I was so nervous, I felt sweat roll down my calves, but I sat stoic and certain that I had looked competent.

The verdict came back, “not guilty”. I had lost.

That evening, as I left the courthouse, a woman stopped me. I recognized her as the jury foreperson.

“Was that your first trial?” she asked.

“Yes, it…”

“I thought so.” She interrupted, “I told them that was the reason you looked so distracted and nervous.”

I shook my head and blurted, “What do you mean?”

She smiled, “The other jurors, they thought you were lying because you were sweating profusely and kept looking at the judge. They thought something was wrong.”

I said goodnight and thanked her. I returned to my office, and I sat at my desk, deflated. My mind raced. Her words played over and over in a loop.

“They thought you were lying.”

I knew it was true. I had been so focused on what the judge thought of me that my sideways glances must have made me appear shifty. Although I believed my presentation to be true, my behavior was projecting discomfort. The effort I expended to look competent for the judge was interpreted by the jury as deceit. I was concerned I would do something wrong, or more accurately, I was worried I would look bad. No wonder they had come back with a “not guilty” verdict. I had become a distraction and undermined my own arguments.

“Now what?” I thought. My dream had always been to be a trial lawyer, and I looked like a liar in court.

When I returned home that night, I sat in my living room and reminded myself of everything that I had done right. In review, I saw that I had done everything right in that trial except I focused on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on my case and the jury, I focused on myself and what the judge thought of my performance. I knew then that my case had been destroyed by my own need for approval.

In the several weeks that passed before my next trial, I reminded myself, “Stop seeking approval. Stop thinking about yourself. It’s twelve jurors and me. No one else in the courtroom matters. I have this.”

I won my very next case.

What I found astonishing was that being comfortable in my own skin required no work. I was just me. I did not try to be who I thought the judge wanted me to be. I stopped trying to impress the judge and focused on communicating effectively to the jury. My energy levels were higher when all of my effort went into the trial rather than working to appear to be someone I thought someone else wanted me to be.

There is greater freedom when you can focus on the task at hand without an internal struggle. When you’re trying to seem as if you are a certain way, it takes work. When you know yourself, and show up as you are, in full acceptance of that, you can be focused on the task at hand. Then, your ability to influence is magnified a thousand times.