Many years ago I participated in a training for facilitating groups, and my group was working on solving a problem that required us to influence each other. I thought I had a good idea for what we should do, and offered it with direct language. The group, however, continued talking about their own idea. They ignored me. I tried again, but their idea had gained even more steam, and they still ignored me.
After my third attempt, the instructor intervened with a simple but powerful strategy: Join Before Differentiating. Jackie, each time you try to lead the group in a different direction, you focus on what you want, but you don’t connect at all with what they are saying,” he said. “You are differentiating—stating a different perspective. Try connecting with—joining—their idea first, before making your suggestion.”
By practicing this, my ability to influence has improved dramatically. This was a profound lesson for me. Over the years, I have shared this with many people who have expressed frustration about their inability to influence effectively. This blog will explain why your ideas fail to gain traction, and show you how to influence more effectively by joining before differentiating.
You may recognize this move from improv theatre, where the golden rule is known as, “Yes, and…” Good improv actors know that you never reject where your acting partners are going. “No” never works – it just stops the action. With an explicit or implicit acknowledgment, you accept the direction of the others on stage before taking the plot in a new direction.
Joining before differentiating is an important approach for influencing individuals as well as groups. Many of us relate to this situation: You listen as someone—a friend, colleague, client, or even your boss—describes a problem and their idea for solving it. The person wants your input. You have an idea that you are sure will work better. “I think you would be more effective if you tried thus and such,” you answer.
The person pauses and may even look taken aback—then resumes talking about their idea. You push back several times, but get no traction.
Working with Resistance
In these situations, the energy of the group or person is moving in a certain direction, and you attempt to push against that energy, or pull it toward you, by offering a different solution.
When the group or individual pushes back or pulls away, you are experiencing resistance. It is not direct, because no one says, “I disagree.” They just don’t consider your idea.
Resistance is just energy. You can’t overcome it. You need to accept it and work with it. I know this is counter to how most people talk about resistance. There is so much more to say about working with resistance, but I’ll have to save that for a future blog post.
A helpful analogy comes from aikido, the traditional Japanese martial art. To turn or move your opponent’s energy, if you push, it only leads to them pushing back, escalating into a struggle for power. A more effective solution is to “accept” or join the other person’s energy first, which allows you to direct it more successfully. Another way to remember this is “connect to direct” – a broader lesson for leaders.
Here’s another example. Brian, a marketing executive I coached, was having no luck getting his boss to consider his suggestions. Their typical conversation went like a ping pong match. Brian would bring him a marketing idea to consider, his boss would have another idea, Brian would respond with his idea again. After a few rounds Brian would give up, and frankly I think most of us would too.
We talked through the possibility of Brian joining his boss’s idea before he offered his own. We practiced, with Brian playing the role of his boss and me demonstrating first how Brian had been communicating, then how he could join before differentiating. This role reversal, and rehearsal, helped him experience the receiving end of his communication style. The light bulb went off.
At the next opportunity, Brian tried this approach. He happily reported that his boss “suddenly became receptive.” The change was that radical. By joining first, before differentiating, Brian connected with his boss and his idea, and completely changed their dynamic. Brian’s frustration went down as his ideas gained traction and his influence increased.
Join Before Differentiating: A 6-Step Process to Greater Influence
By practicing the following six steps, you will get your ideas considered and redirect the energy of a person or group.
Step 1: Connect with the group/person’s idea.
There are multiple ways to do this.
Ask a clarifying question, one to better understand the idea. (Example: “Tell me more about how that would work.”)
Find something about the group/person’s idea that you genuinely like, or think might work. (Example: “I can see how this and that about your idea could work.”)
Let this sink in to you and them. Don’t rush to the next step.
Step 2: Build the bridge to your idea.
Example: “Would you be open to another idea?”
Example: “I’d like to offer another option; are you open to that?”
Step 3: Wait for their reply.
You must respect their wishes. Frankly, if they’re not open to a different idea, then you will waste your energy by offering it.
If they are interested …
Step 4: Offer your idea.
As you do, it’s important to resist the temptation to “diss” their idea or you will undo what you have just built.
Step 5: Ask if they have any questions about it, or if it makes sense.
At this point they may start talking about your idea, and see how it might improve their own.
Step 6: Ask a final question: “What do you think?”
Their answer lets you know what they think of your idea – did they consider it? Decide to do something else? Accept it?
- Acknowledging another’s idea or its value, is not agreeing with the idea.
- You must communicate with authenticity. People can pick up fakeness a mile away. If you are not genuine, you will come across as trying to manipulate.
- If you are part of the group you are trying to influence, you of course will have more investment in your idea’s acceptance. You will want to hold on to it tightly. As the group or person takes more ownership of your idea, and becomes more likely to implement, you want to hold it lightly.
- When someone else is entirely responsible for the acceptance or implementation of your idea, you must offer the idea without attachment.
- For those of us who often believe our ideas are superior, validating another’s idea may not be easy. Study and emulate others who do this quite naturally.
Keep the Conversation Going
As you practice the six steps to master joining before differentiating, let me know how it goes! I’m eager to hear if the results are as effective for your leadership as they have been for others. What methods of communication help you address resistance and be influential?