Influencing skills: push or pull?

Persuasion is not about “Getting other people to do what I ask.” Unfortunately, this commonly held belief demonstrates a lack of understanding of both the scope of persuasion and the opportunity for using different influencing strategies. It also illustrates the lamentable fact that most of us are convinced by our own sense of rightness and that our ideas are the best.

Although academic research on influencing highlights as many as nine different styles, most of us fall into the Push or Pull category. Each style is behaviourally distinctive and each is appropriate for different situations.

>See also: Prioritising skills in the digital age

Let’s start with the push style:

1. I share my idea or opinion with you.
2. I tell you the reasons why it’s a good idea and/or why I’m correct.
3. You agree and you move your position.

Behaviourally speaking, push style is characterised by: proposing content (suggesting an idea); giving information (providing the rationale); and shutting out (talking across others). The solution comes from the influencer and it’s the influencer who does most of the talking.

The push style is the most commonly used and yet it’s only effective around 50% of the time. This may be because we are apologetic or aggressive pushers. Or we may be a misjudged pusher, revealing our solution too early.

In so doing, people under-estimate the strength of resistance they will encounter. What seems clear and convincing to us fails to shift our audience. Frustrated, they try another round of blinding our target with logic, either bludgeoning them into submission or leaving the encounter feeling exasperated. Either way it’s a win:lose outcome at best.

>See also: 10 trends influencing internet companies in 2017

There are, however, times when push works well, for example in conditions where the influencer has positional authority, where you have the expertise, where the decision has already been made, where there’s only one solution, when speed is important and you can enforce compliance.

Yet how often do you adopt a push style when none of these conditions apply?

Take James for example – a middle manager in a multinational business. He needed to create a new direction for his team. So, he articulated a clear, coherent plan and instructed each of his team as to who would do what, and by when. For him, the logic was clear, the detail was exemplary and he was in charge; the team was bound to agree. Push style was a no-brainer.

However, James had overlooked a fundamental question: How important was it that he gain everyone’s commitment to the plan? If engagement is essential, then a Pull style is much more likely to work.

Pullers use three behaviours in particular: seeking proposals (e.g. How should we best do this?); seeking information (e.g. Who has the relevant experience?) and the rare but highly prized skill of building – extending or developing a proposal made by another person.

>See also: The 10 trends that will influence collaboration in 2017

Building is not used as often as it should be, and unfortunately this is usually because the persuader is much more interested in his own ideas and therefore fails to harness the suggestions of others. If James had focused on engaging his team using the Pull style it would have looked more like this:

1. James asks the team for their ideas.
2. The team offers some options.
3. James then asks questions to explore their suggestions.
4. James builds on their suggestions.
5. Together, James and the team agree a way forward.

Using this approach sees the team’s level of commitment increase in line with their engagement.

The pull style can also be effective when influencing upwards, when there’s more than one option, where resistance is likely to be high, when there are no time pressures, where any movement is better than none, when encouraging collaboration and when coaching others to use their resources.

Yes, pull might take a little longer and require greater listening skills, but the rewards outweigh the costs. For example, in a recent performance appraisal discussion, Sian wanted to convince Tom of the need to work on his presentation skills. If she had defaulted to a push style she would have told Tom what she wanted and why.

Instead, using a pull style she was able to get a better understanding of why Tom’s presentation skills weren’t where they needed to be – the underlying need, not the presenting issue. They explored various options for addressing the shortfall and Tom was committed to the outcome. The effort was worth the gain.

>See also: Digital skills gap: How to prepare a generation for the modern workplace

If you think back to the last time you tried to influence someone and were unsuccessful, the likelihood is that you opted for the wrong style or perhaps it was the right style executed poorly.

To be effective we need to be able to use both styles skilfully. Push and pull styles of influencing have nothing to do with tone. You can Push in a thoughtful, low-key way and you can Pull in an intense manner. What differentiates each style is the behaviours involved.

Give some thought as to which style to use and why. When you’re operating as a Pusher, be clear about your proposal, give your reasons and explain what’s in it for the other party.

As a puller, lead with questions, exercise your curiosity, believe that other people can have ideas that could be better than yours and work with those ideas, gaining engagement as you go.


Sourced by Ally Yates, author of Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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