I recently blogged about how researchers can positively channel emotion, to do relevant research that resonates deeply with our audience and spurs them into action. Not long after I wrote the blog, a researcher contacted me to ask for help with a powerful stakeholder who was blocking her research. Her next step was to inform her funders that the project couldn’t be delivered – unless I could help. I made a number of suggestions, and at the end, there was an awkward silence. Then she said, “you know what, I think I might just be myself”.
As we ended the call, I cringed as I thought how some of the things I’d suggested might have come across. What I saw as influencing, she had interpreted as manipulation. But the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I was in fact being myself – I was just emphasizing the parts of myself that were most likely to carry the day. I think it is normal for us to present a different version of ourselves to our colleagues and students to the person we are with our family and friends. Expressing different parts of ourselves in different contexts doesn’t make us insincere. Rather, it makes us empathetic – open and sensitive to the needs of those around us. However, if we don’t have much experience working with the people who might use our research, it may take a bit of work to understand what makes them tick, and work out how best to present ourselves.
So here are the practical tips I gave the researcher who asked for my help. Perhaps you will see these as ethically dubious and have a similarly allergic reaction? Or maybe, like me, you’ll find these ideas give you the leverage to get your evidence and ideas into policy and practice…
Develop a structured and systematic engagement strategy. It doesn’t have to be written down; even if it is only in your head, thinking systematically about how you will engage with key stakeholders can significantly improve your chances of being relevant and helpful. First of all, think carefully about who you want to work with. It may take some time to work out who actually holds decision-making power within an organization. Often, people with high levels of personal and transpersonal power have greater power to actually make things happen in an organization than the people at the top of the hierarchy. Also beware of automatically gravitating to the “usual suspects” who are highly visible, and consider if there are marginalized and powerless individuals or groups that could really benefit from your work, and who may be highly motivated to work with you. Once you’ve worked out who you want to engage with, you need to work out what’s likely to motivate them to engage with you. What messages from your research might resonate with their interests and agendas? What modes of communication are they most comfortable with? What sort of language do they use or avoid? If you can’t reach those with decision-making power to start with, identify people in the organization who are more likely to engage with you, and expand your network from there. Those with decision-making power are more likely to listen to you if the rest of their team are already listening to you.
Empathise: put yourself in the other person’s shoes; work out what motivates them, how they might be feeling, and what they might want from your research. Work out what is likely to build trust in the relationship between you. For example, do you need a letter-headed initial approach or do you need to be introduced over a pint of beer? It may be worth doing some digging about the person and their organization, to help you empathise effectively. For example, you might research them online, looking at their profile and the sorts of things they’re writing about. Alternatively you might ask what others in your network know about them. If none of these ideas work, you can talk to other people in similar roles first, to get a feel for the sorts of issues that are likely to motivate them, and the language and modes of communication they’re likely to respond best to. It’s a bit like the sort of process an actor or actress would go through to research a role they’ve been given.
Practice your communication skills: find out about body language, so you can read how the people you want to influence are reacting to you and adjust your approach accordingly. It is also worth thinking carefully about your own body language. If possible, practice in front of a camera or mirror or get feedback from a colleague. You need to practice open body language that tells the other person you trust them and that they can trust you (e.g. avoid crossed arms and legs and give plenty of eye contact). Think about your handshake and what it conveys – a firm handshake conveys confidence and is more likely to instil trust than a limp one. Put your pen down when you’re not writing and make sure there are no physical barriers between you both (e.g. a pad of paper propped up between you). Be mentally aware of your facial expressions, to make sure you’re not slipping into a scowl as you concentrate on what the other person is saying; try and be as smiley as comes naturally to you. It is important to make it clear you’re listening and genuinely valuing what they tell you with nods and non-verbal, encouraging noises. If you’re really listening with all your heart, you’ll find yourself naturally mirroring the other person to an extent. For example, if you make a strident start and discover the other person is very quiet and shyly spoken, you’ll probably feel uncomfortable continuing to talk loudly and confidently, and will moderate your behaviour to be less different to them. If you are able to adapt your tone of voice and body language to theirs, they are likely to feel respected and feel more able to connect with you. If all of this this doesn’t come naturally, start small, and build from there. Like other roles you have to adopt professionally (e.g. lecturing), with practice it will become second nature, and will become entirely natural.
Give: ensure there genuinely is something in the engagement for the other person that they really want, and think about how you’ll deliver those benefits in concrete terms in the near future. If you’ve managed to really empathise with them, then this bit should be easy.
Assess your power: assess your power in context of the stakeholders you want to work with, bearing in mind that you may be significantly more or less powerful in different contexts. For example, in some contexts because of negative experience with other researchers, your status as an academic might mean people expect you to be irrelevant or exploitative. On the other hand, with a different group of stakeholders, your status as an academic might mean your view carries greater weight. One way of thinking about how powerful you might be in a particular context is to think about your levels of:
Situational power (e.g. your level in formal hierarchies, access to decision-makers);
Social power (e.g. your social standing, race, marital status or whether you have a Dr or Prof in front of your name);
Personal power (e.g. how charismatic, trustworthy and empathetic you are perceived to be); and
Transpersonal power (e.g. a connection to something larger than yourself, ability to transcend past hurts, freedom from fear and commitment to an altruistic vision).
If you don’t have enough power or legitimacy yourself, then think about ways you might be able to improve your personal and transpersonal power (as these are easier to change than your social and situational power). And if you need a quick shortcut to more power, get yourself introduced or accompanied by someone that is already well trusted and perceived to be legitimate in the eyes of the people you want to work with.
6. Finally, where necessary, go around or above obstructive individuals, developing a tailored engagement strategy for the next person in the organisation you need to engage. I was obstructed for years by a science policy analyst who I felt was excessively risk-averse. None of my ideas ever got past her to the senior civil servant with the power to make things happen, because she always sent me away and do another year or two of research to provide more convincing evidence. Eventually after almost a decade of research, I started to form relationships with the economists in her department, who were far more receptive to my ideas. At the same time, through an NGO, we started to communicate the same ideas directly to the Minister. And so eventually, the senior civil servant with the power to actually make things happen was getting our ideas from above and below. The Minister was telling this senior civil servant to look into our ideas, and his team was able to tell him that they’d looked at our ideas and they seemed to work, while their risk-averse looked on. And so things started to actually happen.
This is all stuff that I do naturally without thinking about it. Perhaps you’re the same, and I’m just stating the obvious. But breaking it all down like this, I can see that these are all things I’ve learned over the years, from (sometimes bitter) experience. Breaking it down like this also makes it look terribly pre-meditated, and it is perhaps this that makes it seem manipulative. Of course the reality is that I don’t have to think about these things much any more (though I reflect regularly, as I’m doing here) – I’m just being me and being effective. I don’t know if this makes it acceptable, but there are loads of folk out there using similar approaches to bias decisions away from the evidence, for their own selfish ends. So why not use the same influencing skills for good, to get the evidence we generate through our research into policy and practice?