Influencing is dependent on empathy


Persuasion is one of the most fundamental human characteristics. And according to a survey by LinkedIn, persuasion is second only to creativity in the list of top cores soft skills in business.

But while persuasion has a bad rep due to its link with manipulation, influencing is often viewed as a more positive interpretation. Whether we intend to or not, we all influence others by how we dress, what we say (and what we don’t say), what we do, and how we act. What is interesting is how much we choosed to take conscious control over our natural influencing ability.

Robert Cialdini (who wrote the book on influencing ethically) points out that influencing starts with empathy, something that is also often cited as intergral to effective working relationships. Crucially, Cialdini found that ‘the highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a request’ (Cialdini, 2016: 4).

Before we can exert a conscious inflence over someone, we have to be able to empathise with their:

  • personality
  • professional background
  • pressures
  • priorities, and their
  • personal tastes

Only once we have a solid understanding of who they are and what is affecting them can we begin to adapt our approaches to influencing in response.

In a world where decisions are increasingly based upon large data sets, it can be easy to forget about the more subtle, psychological and environmental aspects that shape our behaviour and decision-making. This was highlighted as long ago as 1950 by Herbert Simon’s principle of ‘bounded rationality’, which states that:

  • our minds must be understood relative to the environment in which they evolved, and
  • the rationality of a decision depends on the environment in which the decision is made

If we are to exert effective influence, we therefore need to be mindful of the complex and constantly shifting set of factors that are affecting our target audience. Unless we take time to empathise with their specific context, needs and experiences, our efforts are unlikely to be successful.


Cialdini, R. (2016) Pre-suasion: a revolutionary way to influence and persuade. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster

Cialdini, R. (2019) The 6 Principles of Persuasion. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 4 February 2019].

Cristofaro M. (2017) Herbert Simon’s Bounded Rationality: its Historical Evolution in Management and Cross-fertilizing Contribution. Journal of Management History. 23(2), pp. 170-190

The Open University. 2019. Introducing environmental decision making. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 4 February 2019].

Photo by Cody Board on Unsplash

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