Influence, Don’t Manipulate

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

We are often faced with trying to influence others through our beliefs and personal experiences. The wrong approach to is brow beat others until they “surrender.” Influence is really a straightforward approach to convincing people that your positions are well-thought; persuasive; justified; and are completely devoid of underhandedness, manipulation or trickery.

If you can honestly influence and good-naturedly persuade others, there is no reason to resort to nefarious or deceitful ways. Humans by nature can either be trusting or they can be cynical. It’s a binary choice. The expression “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” is a centuries-old aphorism. I would posit that no one wants to be fooled twice, so naturally the cynicism antenna is immediately engaged.

There is a fine line between influence and manipulation. When you apply influence to change a person’s mind, the idea to give the impression that the person thought of the idea. You as the influencer try to persuade when you actually believe in what you feel. On the other hand, when you manipulate you still try to persuade but you have no belief in the message you convey.

When you influence, you have 100 percent belief in the process you advocate. When you manipulate, you are focused on the (questionable) tactics you want others to follow.

When you influence, you actively look at the strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons of your own position. When you manipulate you address only the (perceived) strengths of your own arguments.

When you exert influence, you are more apt to be empathetic when learning of others’ woes. The sufferer gains a level of trust. When you employ manipulation, you show a sense of satisfaction when hearing of another’s pain. It’s not only schadenfreude, but in a perverse way, it gives the manipulator a sense of advantage or a personal triumph.

Because listening is a critical ingredient, to influence you are sincerely and empathetically and sincerely listen to someone explain the downside of not acting to solve a problem. When you manipulate, you argue persuasively as you explain what the downsides are by not adhering to your recommendations.


An Open and Honest Mind

When you begin to engage others with honest intentions, they are more apt to see things your way. However, any sense of disingenuousness will arouse immediate skepticism and short circuit any efforts; it will be certain to increase the level of resistance to any sort of recommendation or advice.

Take your CPA. You have used him or her for years. You received the financial statement and/or tax return year in, year out. No new ground was broken or creative thinking employed. This has unavoidably led to complacency for both the provider and the client. But what if your client is engaged in cocktail chatter and is informed by another CPA that for years you could have been saving him on state and local taxes or taken advantage of a generous depreciation allowance? How do you think your client would view you?

Ignorance does not always lead to bliss. In fact, it can lead to disgust and aggravation, and ultimately, a switch of CPAs. These SALT and depreciation allowance are types of low-hanging fruit, but they have now forged an unbreakable trust between the new CPA and the new client.

Whether you caught the train before it left the station, as the business professional you need to maintain and grow the relationship by becoming an active listener who asks open-ended questions and is really interested in the responses. You can either allay the client’s fears or raise the client’s stress level. This is particularly important if the client is looking in the short-term to find an attractive exit strategy.

Here is the time to exercise influence rather than manipulation because you are devoted to seeing a positive change for the client and are pursuing techniques that will yield a positive result.

An Aha Moment

When the client realizes the time has come for a change – their friends, competitors, your spouse’s second cousin, the stranger off the street, and anyone else all offering advice – the biggest hurdle is to overcome a lack of urgency — it could be on either the part of the practitioner or the client. Consider the situation in a CPA firm when the senior partner group knows it needs to merge with a firm composed of younger partners; the longer the wait time, the further diminution of firm value at the time of sale. So a crossroads is reached: influence or manipulation.

You may hear from the partners that the tipping point has not been reached; if it is not broken, why fix it? Your role as a firm leader is to invoke two scenarios: one if the status quo is accepted and the other if a real, concerted and aggressive change is imperative.

Damn If I Do….

In the client situation, if your client decides to make a change, he or she will likely get flummoxed about what exactly the change should be, how much will it cost, who’ll be offended and how much will the stress level increase. Sometimes there is a confluence of factors —loss of revenue, increased competition, departing long-time employees, or an unexpected health problem arising from a key member of the client’s management team.

In other situations, an emerging crisis is not apparent until it hits the fan. All in all, people want, no, need, things to be resolved — perhaps returned to the way things were (although this can restart a bad cycle). At this point, you should create an audience receptive to your ideas. This begins with shaping your approach. The discussion shifts from wallowing in the existing problems to creating a process that connects an individual’s problems with ideas that are jointly created. This way, your client will have an intellectual investment in what needs to be done. The recommendations should not be unilateral; rather, it’s a partnership of ideas and solutions.

At some point, your client will take in all you have advanced and will (hopefully) examine each option presented. You still need to determine whether the client has a sense of urgency or will fall back on the counterproductive practice of complacency. Some people can make a decision quickly, while others want to ruminate further; they are afraid that change will be for the worse, even though you have carefully and painstakingly identified the pros and cons.

Is More Window Shopping Necessary?

Put yourself in the shoes of the client. In fact, pretend that you are at a car dealership deciding to buy or lease a car. You want to cover all angles and ask all the pertinent questions so there will be no surprises. You leave the dealer confidently, but soon after you have second thoughts. Maybe not buyer’s remorse; but what if you obtained is not in alignment with what you needed? For the client, the change you advocated may be is larger than what he or she anticipated. What happens? The client reverts to the old way of doing things.

It’s a known fact: You cannot tell people how to spend their money to make changes, especially if your idea for change is at a more rapid pace than theirs. But as a business “psychologist” coupled with the “trusted business advisor” moniker, you should have the skills to help the client reach the proper conclusions, and not solely on your terms. More important, make the client believe he or she was the one who conceived and decided on the proper course of action. You may not win the engagement, but you have made a smart investment in the future of the relationship.

About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at