A List Apart

Nishant Kothary on the Human Web

“Buy Him A Coffee”

My first job out of college was as a program manager. Program Manager is one of those job titles that sounds important because it implies that there exists a Program, and you have been anointed to Manage it. Who doesn’t want to be boss!

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As with all impressive-sounding things, program management job descriptions are littered with laughable bullets like:

Must be proficient at influencing others without authority.

Which may as well be written as:

Life is.


Thing is Thing.

Pretty much every freshman PM ignores that qualification, and interviewers rarely test for it. We take for granted that the ability to influence people is important (true), and that we are all acceptably good at it (false).

For most of us, the first time our ability to influence people is truly tested is at our first job. And most of us fail that first test.

When I first realized I was terrible at influencing people, I projected the problem outward and saw it as a product of the environment I worked in. “It’s not me, it’s them,” I’d tell my friends at work and my management chain. As I wrote in my first column, my boss would say to me, “It is what it is.” This would instantly make me want to either have at the world with an axe or drive my Outback straight up into the North Cascades, hike until I ran into a grizzly, give her cub a wet willy, and submit to the fateful paw of death.

I also blamed my nature. If you are to believe the results of the informal quiz I took in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, my score of 18/20 suggests I am as introverted as they come. And while I come across as an extrovert now—behavior I’ve practiced over years—nothing about interacting with people feels natural to me. This is not to say that introverts (or I) dislike people. It’s more like like what Dr. Seuss said about children, “In mass, [they] terrify me.”

My first breakthrough came when a colleague at work saw me having a particularly difficult struggle to convince an individual from another team to expedite some work for mine, and suggested, “Buy him a coffee.” The kind of advice that feels like it fell out of a Dale Carnegie book into an inspirational poster of two penguins holding hands. PENGUINS DON’T EVEN HAVE HANDS. But I did it anyway because I was at my wit’s end.

I met him at Starbucks, and picked up the tab for his latte. We grabbed some chairs and awkwardly, wordlessly stared at our coffees.

Panicked at the mounting silence, I tried the first thing that came to mind. What I didn’t know then was that it’s a cornerstone technique of people who are good at influencing others: I asked him something about himself.

“So, are you from Seattle?”

“Indiana, actually.”

“No way. I attended college in Indiana!”

Soon enough, we realized we had far more in common than we’d expected; including cats that, judging by their attitudes, probably came from the same satanic litter. While I still wasn’t able to get him to commit to our team’s deadline, I did walk away with a commitment that he’d do his best to come close to it.

More importantly, I’d inadvertently happened upon a whole new set of tools to help me achieve my goals. I didn’t realize it then, but I had just learned the first important thing about influencing people: it’s a skill—it can be learned, it can be practiced, and it can be perfected.

I became aware of a deficit in my skillset, and eventually I started working on it proactively. It’s been a decade since that first coffee. While I’m still (and suspect, always will be) a work in progress, I have come a long way.

You can’t learn how to influence people overnight, because (as is true for all sophisticated skills) there’s a knowledge component that’s required. It often differs from person to person, but it does take time and investment. Generally speaking, it involves filling gaps about your knowledge of humans: how we think, what motivates us, and as a result, how we behave. I keep a list of the books that helped me along the way, including Carnegie’s almost-century-old classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. But as Carnegie himself wrote, “Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied.”

What will ultimately decide whether you become someone who can influence others is your commitment to practice. Depending on your nature, it will either come easier to you, or be excruciatingly hard. But even if you’re an extrovert, it will take practice. There is no substitute for the field work.

What I can promise you is that learning how to earn trust, be liked, and subsequently influence people will be a worthwhile investment not only for your career, but also for your life. And even if you don’t get all the way there—I am far from it—you’ll be ahead of most people for just having tried.

So my advice to you is: instead of avoiding that curmudgeon at work, go buy them a coffee.

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