Why people follow your advice (or don't)

By Charles H. Green

Trusted Advisor Associates


The key to getting people to listen to you — seriously listen, with a willingness to take your advice — is whether or not you have first listened to them.

Have you ever found yourself talking to a client where you were very clear about just what they needed? Of course you have. (And let’s assume you were right).

And have you ever, in such a situation, calmly told the client exactly what they needed and then had them reject your advice? I’m betting you have.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably went back and explained it more carefully, with more data, making it simpler and more compelling and logical, to the point where only a fool or a mule could possibly argue with your recommendation. And yet, they still didn’t take your advice.

Has that ever happened to you? If it has, I have some good news for you. There is one best explanation for why that client didn’t follow your advice. And — even better news — it is well within your power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

How influence works

Many things affect influence, but one stands out: reciprocal listening. As in, “If you listen to me, I will listen to you.” In other words; the key to getting people to listen to you — seriously listen, with a willingness to take your advice — is whether or not you have first listened to them.

If that sounds absurdly simple, consider the following examples.
  • You’ve probably heard the old sales saying, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It’s not a cute line; it’s solid psychology. Translation: if you listen to them, they will then listen to you.

  • Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of The World is Flat, is a Jewish kid from Minneapolis; yet he travels to and talks all the time with people in the Arab world. How does he do it? By listening first to the other person. He says listening is a sign of respect; it’s not what you hear from listening, it is the act of listening itself that is interpreted as respectful. And people return respect for respect. If you listen to them, they will listen to you.

  • Volunteers on suicide hotlines are taught never to offer advice in the early stages of a phone call; the first 10 minutes with a distraught person are to be spent doing nothing but empathetically understanding the distraught caller, because only if you listen to them will they listen to you.

  • Dr. John Gottman, expert on marital relationships and founder of the Gottman Institute, says if you want to have your advice taken, you must first let the other person know you have listened to and understood them.

Why listening drives influence

As Thomas Friedman notes, reciprocal listening is all about respect. It is the same principle that governs basic etiquette: if I extend my hand and say good morning to you, I expect you to reciprocate. If instead, you growl, turn away from my extended hand, and don’t meet my eyes, I feel rejected, disrespected, dismissed. And I’m not inclined to care about anything you have to say.

But listening turns all that around. Not listening to uncover customer needs, or pain points, or opportunities to make a pitch. Instead, profoundly simple and basic listening: listening just for the sake of understanding another person. It is the fact of being listened to that inclines us to listen to another person.

Most basic human motivations are pretty simple — think about our needs for affiliation or achievement or recognition. It shouldn’t be surprising that the driver of influence is equally basic.

Keeping it simple

To listen in this way, you need to keep it simple and genuine. There’s a bit of a paradox at work here. If you want to have influence, then stop trying to have influence. Instead, start conversations by just listening to your customers — without trying to find out critical information, or looking for a closing opportunity, or trying to find a solution.

Instead, just listen. Listen as if it were your oldest friend you’re talking to. Listen from a place of curiosity. Listen to find out what’s going on with the customer sitting in front of you — in their terms. Just. Listen.

How long do you listen? Until the customer feels heard. Until they sense that you “get” them. Until they’re ready to listen to you. You’ll know when that is — trust your instincts.

And then they’re a lot more likely to hear what you might have to say.