5 influencing styles—and how to use them effectively
Advisors can discover—and enhance—their influencing style for better communication with clients and colleagues, according to research published by Harvard Business Review.
How good are you really at motivating people to act? Experts find that most of us rely on one of five influencing styles, which is inherently limiting. When you understand all five, you have a powerful tool that can help you motivate people in a positive way. In this article, discover your own influencing style, how to identify the styles of others, and when to adjust the way you communicate.
The psychology of influence
Many of us assume that communication prowess is an innate gift. But it isn’t. In Harvard Business Review, Chris Musselwhite, CEO of Discovery Learning Inc., and Tammie Plouffe, managing partner of Innovative Pathways, reveal that you can improve your powers of communication once you learn to identify and navigate what they call the five distinct styles of influence.1
That’s good news for advisors, since the ability to positively influence others is an essential skill—one that helps you guide clients toward wise financial decisions. Influencing skills are also valuable for building stronger relationships with partners and employees and when making connections with new prospects.
Unfortunately, the research suggests that we’re not as adept in this area as we might think. Musselwhite and Plouffe warn that in situations where we would most benefit from being flexible, we become rigid and default to our habits: "When we are operating unconsciously out of a preference (our style) and not seeing the results we expect, we actually have the tendency to intensify our preferred behavior—even when it’s not working!"2 These situations most often occur when speaking to people who have an influencing style that is different from our own.3
Explore the five styles4 below to determine your primary mode of influence. Then learn how to pick up on others’ cues and how to adjust your style to one that will be most appealing to your audience.
Determine your style
Identifying your primary influencing style is a critical first step in improving your ability to motivate people. Once you’re aware of your own style, it should become easier to notice the default styles of others. This increased awareness can help you detect when your approach isn’t working and decide how to best remedy the situation.
Consider the questions below. Which style sounds most like you?
- Bridging: Are you comfortable drawing on the connections of friends and colleagues? Do you bring people together and invite relevant stakeholders into your conversations to build consensus?
- Rationalizing: Are you analytical? Do you often use facts and data to support your point of view?
- Asserting: Are you a straight shooter? Do you use your confidence to help motivate others to act?
- Inspiring: Are you a compelling speaker? Do you use stories and metaphors to help people understand complex ideas, to offer encouragement, or to instill a feeling of shared purpose?
- Negotiating: Are you a strong collaborator? Do you proactively seek ways to satisfy different interests, leave room for all voices to be heard, and create consensus and harmony?
Develop an expert ear
Improve your ability to determine others’ styles by being an active listener and taking note of how they communicate. Try to:
- Keep an open mind. Enter meetings without assuming you know the problems or solutions.
- Ask questions and listen carefully. Notice the tone, the body language, and the way people structure their ideas. What are their concerns? When are they most animated?
- Take note. Be a good listener. Write down or make a mental note of when people say or do something that reveals their influencing style.
- Review the evidence. Based on what you’ve gleaned, which BRAIN approach is most appropriate?
- Match their style. Meet them with the same communication style that they use—the one they’re most comfortable with. Practice empathy and pay close attention to how your influence is received. Adapt as the conversation progresses.
Turn habit into intention
When you influence from a place of habit and lean too heavily on your primary style, you reduce your odds of being heard and limit your ability to motivate others.5
According to Musselwhite and Plouffe, "The tactics we default to are also the ones which we are most receptive to."6 In other words, we often influence the way we like to be influenced. Therefore, it's important to recognize the influencing style of the person you're speaking to and then match it.
The examples below demonstrate how one might accomplish this shift in style and put intentional influence into practice.
Scenario: Your succession plan rests on developing one particularly talented junior advisor. However, when you ask him to join the advisory board, he says he's hesitant to take on too much at once, citing other junior advisors who aren't participating. His referencing of peers tells you that he might be a bridging influencer.
Bridging approach: If you are an assertive influencer, your first impulse would be to say, "Look, this is good for your career. You need to do this." But such a direct approach could cause a bridging influencer to dig in his heels. Because bridging influencers respond well to social proof, you decide to invite his mentor to share her experience of serving on the board. After hearing about the value it offered her, he now feels more confident in pursuing the opportunity.
Scenario: A prospective client wants to reorganize his retirement portfolio, but you feel his specific strategy is at odds with his long-term goals. When questioned, he cites data trends and all his research, which reveals that he might be a rationalizing influencer.
Rationalizing approach: You shift to a rationalizing style, acknowledging the thinking that went into his strategy and asking him again what his retirement goals are. You outline the costs and benefits of several scenarios, allowing the prospect to follow the logic and conclude on his own that his strategy may not be as ideal as he thought. Now he’s open to other options.
Scenario: You’re speaking with a professional colleague to establish a new source of referrals. You ask about his approach to client service, and he says, “We work with people who want to work with the best.” From his confident and direct manner, you recognize he has an assertive style.
Asserting approach: Rather than go deeply into all the reasons why you’d make a good fit, you meet his asserting style by congratulating him on what he’s built and stating your position succinctly. “We specialize in what your clients need. I’m certain we’re your ideal partner. Let’s put this in motion and get to work.”
Scenario: You’re in an estate-planning session with your client and her 25-year-old son. Not long into the meeting, you notice the young man looks bored because the discussion doesn’t feel relevant. He’s looking for inspiration, but he’s getting a dissertation.
Inspiring approach: To make the information more relatable, you shift to an inspiring style and tell a story about another young client who put properties into a trust, which opened up possibilities he hadn’t considered. You explore the idea that the young man may have kids someday and may want to take them on adventures to his family’s vacation properties. He becomes emotionally invested in the conversation, and you've found a way in.
Scenario: Your client is concerned that she’s not achieving the results she wants with her current investment strategy. But you’re not comfortable with the new approach she suggests. You pick up on the fact that she isn’t demanding as much as seeking agreement—a negotiating tactic. There are hints she might be open to changing course incrementally and testing the waters.
Negotiating approach: Rather than try to convince her that she’s making a mistake, you look for a way to satisfy her desire to explore something new while also protecting the long-term strategy. You offer a complimentary portfolio audit and a timetable for switching strategies. This way, if she doesn’t see the results she’s looking for, all is not lost. She feels heard and is pleased with this new plan.
Practice each style
As Musselwhite and Plouffe make clear, all five influencing styles can be effective, but a single style can’t address every situation.7 Like learning a new language, mastering the influencing styles takes work. If you practice listening with an expert ear and communicating with intention, you can improve your ability to guide your clients to better results, turn more prospects into clients, and create meaningful connections with your peers.
We hope these influencing insights help you make the most of your ability to guide and motivate action in others, with the goal of increasing client trust.
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1. Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, "What’s Your Influencing Style?," Harvard Business Review, January 13, 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/01/whats-your-influencing-style.
3. Musselwhite and Plouffe, "When Your Influence Is Ineffective," Harvard Business Review, March 28, 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/03/when-your-influence-is-ineffective.
4. Musselwhite and Plouffe, "What's Your Influencing Style?," Harvard Business Review, January 13, 2012.
5. Musselwhite and Plouffe, "To Have the Most Impact, Ask the Right Questions," Harvard Business Review, November 12, 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/11/to-have-the-most-impact-ask-qu.
6. Musselwhite and Plouffe, "Whats Your Influencing Style?," Harvard Business Review, January 13, 2012.