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Dec. 29, 2022

224 [BEST OF] You Have More Influence Than You Think and The Science of Influence with Dr. Vanessa Bohns | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

224 [BEST OF] You Have More Influence Than You Think and The Science of Influence with Dr. Vanessa Bohns | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Professor Vanessa Bohns. Dr. Vanessa Bohns is a social psychologist, an award-winning researcher and teacher, and a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. Vanessa Bohns is also the author of the book: You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters. In this conversation, Vanessa Bohns shares insights on how we influence those around us and how to harness our influence to make a positive difference in leadership. 

Some Highlights: 

- Why do we tend to underestimate our influence

- Vanessa Bohns on why it's hard for us to ask for things 

- Why it's hard when asked to say no 

- How social pressures influence behavior

- Understanding the impact of power roles on the influence in organizations

- The disadvantages of working remotely vs. in person when it comes to influencing at work

- Vanessa Bohns on how we can be better at understanding other people's perspectives

Also mentioned in this episode:

- Marianne LA France, author and a professor of Psychology at Yale University

- Erica Boothby, a researcher, and Instructor in the Operations, Information, & Decisions Department at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania

Books Mentioned:

- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

- You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters by Vanessa Bohns

Connect with Vanessa Bohns:

Vanessa Bohns Official Website

Vanessa Bohns on LinkedIn

Vanessa Bohns on Twitter: @profbohns

Vanessa Bohns on Instagram: @profbohns

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:



More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

Mahan Tavakoli Website

Mahan Tavakoli on LinkedIn

Partnering Leadership Website


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Dr. Vanessa Bohns. Vanessa is a social psychologist and award-winning researcher and teacher, and a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. 

We spend most of our time in this conversation talking about her book, You Have More Influence Than You Think. It is an outstanding book, whether we want to reflect on our own influence in our relationships, in the community and society at large. And most specifically with respect to the influence we have as leaders. And in some instances, the unintended consequences of some aspects of influence. And in other instances, the intended impact of that influence. Vanessa in her book and in the conversation shares a lot of outstanding studies that we can look at, learn from, and therefore reflect on our influence.

I really enjoyed this conversation. Learned so much from reading the book and a conversation with Vanessa. I'm sure you will too. I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Really enjoyed those voice messages.

Don't forget to follow the podcast. That way, you'll be sure to be notified of new releases. Tuesdays with magnificent Changemakers from the greater Washington, DC DMV region and Thursdays with brilliant global thought leaders like Vanessa Bohns. 

Now here's my conversation with Professor Vanessa Bohns.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Professor Vanessa Bohns. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Vanessa Bohns: 

Thanks so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I absolutely love your book: You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters. It's interesting to me, Vanessa, because most people try to sell books so people can gain more influence. You are telling us that we actually have more influence than we think. So I love a lot of what you say in that book, but before we get to it, would love to know whereabouts you grew up, Vanessa, and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become?

Vanessa Bohns: 

Sure. I grew up in New Jersey and people have a certain image of what New Jersey is like, but I actually grew up on a farm in New Jersey. So it is called the garden state for a reason. And we do have farms. And it was actually a bird farm. My dad was a mechanic. My mom was a teacher but we really didn't talk a lot about university and what it was like. 

My dad had never been to university. He really didn't have a good sense of it. For many years as a professor, he would ask me all sorts of questions about my job, because he really just did not understand what I did. 

I think growing up in that sort of environment really shaped the way I paid attention to things in the world and influence and the way in which we underestimate ourselves, that's not always necessary.

So for example, I went to an Ivy league college, which was a big deal in my family. And when I got there I was surrounded by all these people who went to private schools and just seemed like they were born to be there. They really felt comfortable. They felt comfortable talking to their professors. And they just didn't really think anything of it. Whereas I was constantly in my head like, I'm here. Do I belong here? I had this Imposter syndrome the entire time to the point where, when I studied abroad and I went to the registrar to submit my grades, they couldn't find my name for a second. And I was like, I knew it. I never belonged here. I never actually was accepted. 

But I think that I did well, and I did as well as anybody else with any background and went on to get my PhD. And in the end, I think I started to realize that it wasn't that I didn't belong there. And it wasn't that I was any less than anyone. But it was this misperception. 

And so I think that general misperception and that underconfidence in talking to lots of people. You know, it's not just me, so many people have that similar experience. And I think that's really shaped the kinds of things I've been drawn to studying. And the kinds of findings that have really meant a lot to me and my personal life and in my professional life.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's really interesting because we all have a little bit of that imposter syndrome in us. And you tapped into that in yourself, in studying human behavior. Now, do you know when initially you decided to yourself, you know what? I want to study human behavior and what influences humans.

Vanessa Bohns: 

So I did some research in undergrad, so I did work in a sleep lab at Brown. But I still thought that I might want to go into advertising. That was always my thought. I was a psychology major. I was considering advertising and I got a job. I got my dream job in advertising right out of college.

And I wound up really not liking it. And was looking for something else. And the thing I liked the most when I was in advertising was the people doing market research, which you needed a PhD to do in the firm that I was in. And so I tried a bunch of things out for a few years and then wound up going back to get my PhD still thinking I would go back into marketing or advertising and use it somehow there.

And I just fell in love with research. It felt like just being in school and kind of being creative and playing all the time and that could actually be your job. And it's hard to get a job in academia and so I was never married to it. I kinda just took one foot in front of the other as I made my way and just did the next thing to get to that place. But eventually, yeah, I want to beat my job. Now I just get to run studies, which to me is like playing all the time.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's one of the things I love about your book, Vanessa, you have lots and lots of studies. We can spend hours talking about them, which is why the book is an absolute must read. Now you say in the book that we underestimate our influence. Why is that? Why do we underestimate our influence?

Vanessa Bohns: 

There's different reasons why we underestimate our influence in different sorts of contexts. One of the things I talk about is there are several ways we do this. We underestimate how much people are paying attention to us. We underestimate how much people are convinced by us and like us. We underestimate the extent to which we can get people to do things for us. And each of those things, you can explain the specifics of those interactions, but there are some broad things that we do that cause us to underestimate our influence across all those contexts. 

And so one is something called negativity bias which shows up all over the place, even in interpersonal interactions. And that is our tendency to focus more on the negative and remember the negative and feel it more intensely than positive experiences. So if we tried to influence someone and it didn't work. Or we ask someone for something and we are rejected. We remember that for a long time, and that is very vivid. Whereas all the times someone just immediately listened to something we had to say or copied us or agreed to do something for us, those kind of faded away. They just don't have the same salience. So that's one thing. 

And then the other one is that we have this idea about influence that is very narrow and formal. So when we think about influence, we think about these cases where you stand up in the front of the room and you really try to change someone's mind. We think of influencing the person who was furthest from our own perspective. Someone who's like on the other side of the political spectrum. So we have this idea of what influence is supposed to look like. And if we've influenced someone, we also have an idea of what that would look like. They would concede. All of a sudden they completely changed their mind. 

An anti-vaxxer would suddenly go right in front of us and get vaccinated. We don't really think in that cartoonish way, but there is an idea that that's how I'll know I have influence. When in fact so much of influence is invisible to us. It happens in somebody else's mind where we can't see it. It happens a week later or a month later. It happens in a cumulative fashion. Or like we say something and three other people say something similar and finally you know that has someone crossed the threshold. And so, because our idea of what influence should look like doesn't match the reality. We think that we're not having impact when we actually are all the time. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Vanessa, this is something I've been thinking a lot about since reading your book because. I'm very familiar with how, in many instances, we overestimate our capabilities, right? We're all better than average drivers. We're all better than average looking. Smarter than average. Why is that when it comes to influence, we tend to think ourselves not being as influential as we are in addition to the fact that some of the influence, as you're saying, just happens by default?

Vanessa Bohns: 

I mean, this is one of the things that's so fascinating about the series of findings that I review in the book where we are underestimating ourselves and show this underconfidence because for so many years people had been finding all these different ways in which were overconfident. And as you said, we're overconfident in our driving and we think we're less biased than the average person. We think we're more moral and smarter, et cetera. And really it does seem to come down to these interpersonal contexts and that's for a few different reasons. 

One is that we're really bad at perspective taking and really getting into somebody else's mind. And that's what interpersonal influence is really about. I can look back at my own driving. If I'm thinking about whether I'm a good driver, I just think about the car and me driving. I don't have to perspective take and think about someone else's motives and ideas and beliefs. But when I'm trying to judge my interpersonal influence, I do have to do that. If I want to know if someone likes me, I have to be able to get out of my own head, get into their head, understand what they really think about me in this accurate way. And that's really hard. And so we tend to underestimate ourselves in that way. The other thing is that we tend to compare ourselves to exemplars of influence when we're trying to gauge how we fit in the landscape of influence in a way that we don't necessarily when we're judging these other things. 

If I'm trying to judge my driving, I'm not comparing myself to this race car driver and judging myself based on that. But when I'm comparing myself on influence, I am thinking of, okay what does an influencer look like? Oh, it's you know, the most popular influencer on Instagram. It's someone who is just incredibly social and is always out hanging out with people. And so, because that's our comparison and we're comparing ourselves to these exemplars of influence, we tend to fall short in ways that we don't necessarily, we just don't go through the same sort of process, with these other kinds of things. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now with that, greater influence people tend to say yes to us, you say, if we actually get up to asking. Why is it so hard for us to ask people for things? And why is it so hard for people to say no to us?

Vanessa Bohns: 

Yeah, this is so interesting because when you think about asking for interaction, there's two people with a lot of self-conscious concerns who are feeling really uncomfortable at the moment, and both people are not recognizing how the other person on the other side of the interaction is feeling.

So when we're the ones asking for help, asking for help is incredibly anxiety provoking. When we ask for something we're showing our vulnerability. We're opening ourselves up for someone to see something we can't do. So we're revealing our weaknesses. We're also opening ourselves up to rejection. And rejection could mean that the relationship we have with that other person is not what we thought it was. It could mean that we're not what we thought we were the thing we're asking. There's something wrong with that somehow. And so it's really a stressful thing to ask someone for something. And it turns out that because we're so focused on our own anxieties and our own stress in that moment, we miss that on the other side of that interaction, there's someone else who's worried about their own anxieties, right?

So we think that it's really easy for someone to reject us. And so that's why we're anticipating this rejection. When in fact it's really hard to reject someone, right? If you flip the script and think of yourself in that other perspective, and now someone's standing in front of you asking you for something. It's really hard to come up with the words to say no. And you're worried about so many of the same things, right? You don't want to ruin the relationship. You don't want to risk offending the other person or hurting their feelings. You don't want to look like a bad person or an unhelpful cold person.

And so you have all these concerns going on in your head. And those concerns actually make people more likely to say, yes than no in those situations, even though we anticipate that oh, it's easy for someone to say, no, they'll just reject me when we ask for something.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And even when there isn't a relationship, you share examples of people being willing to hand over their cell phones or even vandalizing library books. So it's not just the relationship. It's people doing what they're asked to do.

Vanessa Bohns: 

That's right. And it's so interesting that it's not just in friendship relationships, as you said. In fact, our findings of this misprediction error are even bigger for strangers because we think strangers don't care. That they'll just say no to people, but if you imagine yourself walking down the street, when someone comes up to you and asks for something, you still see that person as a person, you code them as a person. All the rules of social interaction apply. Politeness is actually an incredibly strong force that we forget about and underestimate. But just the politeness of, I don't want to be rude and say no to this person and potentially offend them is an incredibly strong force. 

And so we have, as you said, gotten participants in our studies, what we typically do is we bring people into the lab and we tell them you're going to ask strangers for things. And we have them predict how many people basically will say yes, and then we go and have them test it out. And we've gotten people to ask people to hand over their cell phones, the most sort of valuable device so many of us have. We've gotten them to get people to donate to charity, to help them walk across three city blocks to find someplace they couldn't find.

And even as you said, we've run studies where we've really upped the ante and had people ask strangers, people they don't know, to do things like vandalize a library book while they're sitting there in a library. And in each of these cases, people are less likely to reject you than you think, which means people are more likely to help you. But also in these other instances, more likely to do things even unethical things, than we tend to think, because it's so hard to say no.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

This is really interesting because we tend to think that in that same situation, we would say no. That's a lot easier said than done. You also talk about research by Marianne LA France with people being asked uncomfortable questions. Do you mind going into that?

Vanessa Bohns: 

Sure. Yeah. It's interesting because just like we're so bad at putting ourselves in someone else's position and how hard it would be to speak up and say, no, we're also really bad at predicting how we would behave. We think we would behave differently in a situation. 

And so the research you're mentioning by Marianne LaFrance she basically got a study approved through the ethics board, which is unbelievable because the study allowed her to bring people into the lab under the pretense that they were interviewing for a research assistant position. And she had this interviewer who was trained to just act as the interviewer. He was a Confederate experimenter and he would say these inappropriate things to the women who were coming in to interview. So he would ask them inappropriate things about their bras and their boyfriends and things you would never be able to ask in an interview. And when she asked a group of people who were not in this situation, what would you do?

So she asked a group of women, imagine you went into an interview and someone asks these questions and she used the exact same questions that she used in this actual stage study. What would you do? And what the women say is “I wouldn't answer those questions. I would storm out of the room. I would tell the interviewer that was inappropriate.” And when she asked, how would you feel at that moment? They say, “I would feel really angry.” So that's how you imagine you would react. I'd be really bold in that situation. But when people are actually put in that situation, what she finds instead is that, in fact, hardly anyone says that they won't answer the questions. Most people answer them. Pretty much nobody said anything to the interviewer. Like this is wrong. You shouldn't be asking these questions and no one stormed out and left the interview. Because in fact, all those social pressures we talked about kept people sitting there smiling.

In fact, they wound up smiling to appease the interviewer because instead of feeling angry they actually felt afraid at that moment, they felt anxious. And when you think about how saying no, or speaking up against someone who's saying something inappropriate can actually be risky, right? It can feel risky to someone. It can feel socially risky because you risk damaging the relationship. It can feel pragmatically risky because you may be missing out on a job. But it can even feel physically threatening in some situations. And we tend to miss that when we're not in that immediate situation. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That is such a powerful lesson, Vanessa, for leaders, as they're thinking about their organizations and their team members, it is not just assigning responsibility to the individual to have the power to say no. We assume that people in their individual roles are able to do it a lot more so than they are, especially when dealing with people in power positions.

Now there've been lots of different things written about the Milgrim studies. Many people are familiar with the Stanford prison experiment, but there are different things that we have also seen. You share an example of a basketball coach at Rutgers and how he was able to make his team members uncomfortable gradually.

Vanessa Bohns: 

That's right. And so this is a case where someone in a position of power was basically asking his players to do something inappropriate. And in this case it was a strip basketball session. So he's a basketball coach at Rutgers, as you said. And he decided that he was going to mix things up in his practice sessions. And he decided to do a strip poker-like session where the players would shoot free throws. And each time they missed a free throw, they had to take off an article of clothing. He says that he just thought that this would be a fun way to mix up practice, basically. 

There were a couple players who really struggled with free-throws. And they wound up totally naked by the end of the practice session, running wind sprints up and down the court, in front of their entire team. So of course this was incredibly humiliating for those players. They were really upset by it. And in the end they wound up suing the coach and Rutgers and moving to other places where they actually led their respective teams to the NCAA tournament.

What we see in the transcripts of those suits and the New York times and other outlets coverage of this whole legal battle that it turned into is you see these two perspectives that really align in the way that we were talking about. You've got the players saying this was a practice session, we weren't going to say no to our coach. You know, when they're kind of pressed on that. And you've got a coach who's saying, “I didn't make them do this. This was a totally voluntary thing. If they felt uncomfortable, they should have told me. If they felt uncomfortable, they could have not participated.” And they're saying basically that was just a nonstarter. It's our coach and this division one basketball practice there's no way we were going to say no in that moment. 

And you just see this huge divide between the two perspectives where the coach is just completely oblivious to the power that he had and the inability of his players to actually speak up against him and tell him, “I'm not going to do this. I'm uncomfortable.”

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And those are the types of things that Vanessa inside organizations I talk a lot about psychological safety and need for psychological safety. Many of the leaders that I interact with and I see, see themselves behaving like peers with their team members. They say well, everyone's comfortable around me to say what they feel. And we have an open environment. However, that's not the case. Power does play a role. Therefore, how can leaders be mindful of that? And how can they depower themselves in the conversations in order to be able to allow people to push back when they need to, or to voice when they are feeling uncomfortable?

Vanessa Bohns: 

It's interesting because I think for many of us, it's just natural as we rise through the ranks to kind of at each stage, not feel like we're really at that position to still feel like one of the team. I mean, it's taken me a long time, even as a tenured university professor, to feel like I'm not just like one of the students, one of the grad students. I think we fail to see how we're seen by other people by virtue of this increase in our hierarchical power. And we'd like to think that we're just the same person, who can just hang out but it's not true. There is a power dynamic there and people do see us differently. 

And one of the issues with that is that makes people not feel even if there is psychological safety,  they don't always feel totally comfortable being totally honest about their opinions, especially when they diverge from the bosses opinions or someone in a high power position.

There's several things you can do to allow people to feel more comfortable, voicing alternative perspectives. A lot of them are quite simple. For example, don't be the first person to give your opinion if you want to have an open debate about something or an open discussion about something. Because the second, the person in power gives their position, no one else feels comfortable giving in an alternative perspective, or not fully comfortable. At that point anything that goes against that initial opinion is going against the boss. And so it has to be phrased a little more softly, a little more gently, and you're not getting true honesty.

At the same time you may want to allow people to speak first and make sure everybody voices their opinion, because that's another thing. A lot of people will not say anything. If you say you know, does anyone disagree or does anyone have any other comments? People won't say something instead of actually openly disagreeing. And that's less likely to happen if you actually go around and make sure each person voices what they think and gets a little bit of time to hold the stage and you actually listen. And so a lot of it is coming down to creating more space for other people's voices and actually being true to that space. Allowing them to speak. Listening.

You go last. It's easy to want to jump in and share your perspective. And a lot of us in powerful positions have an underlying desire to show why we're there. I have good ideas, so I'm going to spout them out and see how you guys feel. But if you actually want genuine debate and openness, you have to make space for other people. And that is a big part of leadership.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And being aware of the fact that we are all influenced by what we see around us. And there's so much that power dynamics play in this role. And then the embarrassment plays in it too. Lots of examples, including people seeing smoke and not responding to it when they see others not responding to it. So being familiar with those and aware of it, power dynamics is really important. 

Now you also mentioned Vanessa, that if you have a chance to ask, if you want to give yourself a better chance, people typically would say yes, especially if it's done in person. In person is a lot more powerful than done virtually. A lot of organizations are operating in somewhat of a virtual environment. And in many instances, they will allow for flexibility in some of their team members to remain in a hybrid work environment. Does that therefore say that the people that are working remotely and virtually will be at a disadvantage in influencing their peers and their bosses to get what they want done?

Vanessa Bohns: 

I hate delivering the bad news, but I think that to some extent that is true. It doesn't mean that it can't be counteracted, but unfortunately in hybrid environments, which a lot of us are in right now, the people who are in-person they're the people who can have a little huddle, a little hallway chat a little water cooler chat, and then come into a meeting, figuring out what their joint opinion is. And now you have a cohort of people who have already determined a direction of conversation is going to go in, or decision's going to go in, and then everybody hops on a call. If you have this hybrid call, and that group in the room is already kind of a unit that knows what's going on. And if you're not careful, you wind up in a position where those people really are driving things forward and you're missing out on all these other alternative perspectives and other voices. And so if you don't want that to happen one thing you can do is actively solicit the sorts of voices from people who are participating virtually. 

Again very similar to going around a room and making sure everyone states their opinion. It's so easy for people to get lost virtually. If you're on a zoom meeting, especially a big one, there are pages where you don't see people. And so making sure everybody has a chance to voice their opinion. We do this when we're making important decisions here at the university and committees that I'm on and it can get redundant.

You start to feel like one person after another saying similar things and you almost get bored of it. But it's so important to show people that everybody has a voice in this. And to actually hear if there is some descent. That's the onus that I think comes on leaders and people in the organization to sort of bring other people in.

And then there's also the kinds of things that you could do as an individual, trying to influence virtually to keep yourself top of mind so you don't totally lose influence by not coming into the office. And those are things like really preparing what you're going to say. In person, you can get away with saying things and really inarticulate ways and not having full thoughts and interrupting. And it doesn't really matter because there's so much conveyed non-verbally and there's less awkwardness when you interrupt on like virtual channels, you get this weird, awkward thing when you try to interrupt. And so really when you're trying to influence virtually you need to hold the stage in a way and make your whole point coherently. And you have to prepare what you're going to say, you can't just jump in and throw out an idea. And the other thing is staying in touch with everyone so that you have social connections with everyone, because a lot of influence is also, just people you like. We listen to people we like, we listen to the people we grabbed coffee with and have heard their opinions.

And so the more you can keep doing that in a virtual environment, the better. And actually the last one I'll say is use richer communication media, because what we do find is that you're way less influential over email and only a little less influential over zoom and phone. Email is great in lots of ways, but it's not great for persuasion.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

The closest we get to connecting with the humanity of the other individuals, the better it is. So those are, great tips to keep in mind. At the same time, the In-person experience is not fully duplicated. One other thing that you touch on. I think Erica Boothby had done research on how our experience of chocolate even whether the chocolate is bitter or sweet is more pronounced when we experience it with other people.

So I wonder again, how does that impact the in-person versus virtual environment where some people get a chance to experience things could be chocolate coffee or the meaning in person, as opposed to some being virtual?

Vanessa Bohns: 

Yeah. And, you know, I don't know any research on this and I'm very curious. I think there's reasons to think it could dampen it, but at the same time, reason to think that you could still get some of the benefits of that without being, in-person why by just simultaneously experiencing something over zoom you know, watching a movie together over zoom or, experiencing tasting something or whatever It might be.

And that's because one of the explanations she gives for her findings is that the reason that experiences that we share are amplified is that we are experiencing something. And at the same time, we are simultaneously imagining how somebody else is experiencing it. 

So I'm thinking oh, I really like this piece of art, for example, I wonder what the person standing next to me is thinking? And I'm taking on two perspectives and that just heightens the whole experience for me. I'm kind of analyzing it, it's going through my mind twice. And so I think for that reason, even if you have like a book club or, if you get together with friends and watch a movie, or if you watch things together as an organization, I think you would still get that effect, because you're still imagining how other people are experiencing it. But I don't know if being in the same physical room would make it that much more intense. 

My friends and I actually do this thing, we call it a music taste test. And everyone submits a song and then we all rate it and then someone wins. So we're like who's the best at music basically, and choosing music. I listened to this playlist and anyone could curate a playlist for me and just give it to me. But I know while I'm listening to it, that my 10 other friends are also listening to it. I know what their personalities are like. I'm thinking like, oh, I know so-and-so is thinking this about the song. And it just makes it so much more interesting to listen to each of the songs, you know? And I think even when we're not in person, there's still that element of it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It can be recreated, but as I was reading this section in your book Vanessa I was reflecting on the fact that last week I was in an in-person event in downtown DC. A very famous political analyst was breaking down some of the political issues that we're facing as a country. A very, very boring, dry talk, but it was very enjoyable because you could look around and see the other people's reactions and how they felt bored and disconnected.

So it's interesting how, as you say, the shared experience and trying to connect to that shared experience, changes the content itself. Yeah, definitely. And I mean, I had the experience too, of watching conferences. Now we have virtual conferences and it definitely doesn't feel the same, even if I know other people are watching. So I do think there is still something to that in-person. I could see other people's non-verbals. We are sharing this moment in this space. 

Another point that you make Vanessa, which I think is really powerful to the value of making sure the rooms we are in are representative and diverse is audience tuning. Can you talk a little bit about audience tuning?

Vanessa Bohns: 

Sure. This is the idea that when I'm stating a message or an opinion, I naturally tune that message to my audience, to the person I'm trying to talk to. So in a really simple way if I know that the restaurant I ate dinner at last night is your favorite restaurant. And I didn't have the greatest experience there. I'm not going to talk about how terrible the restaurant is. I'm going to slightly tune my message and say It was okay. Like, what do you like about it? But if someone else I knew really didn't like that restaurant, I'd be like, oh yeah, that was terrible. 

So I'm just shaping my attitude to meet what I presume about or know about my audience. And it's something we all naturally do. It's part of creating bonds and showing that I'm taking your perspective into account. I want you to like me so I changed my message just a little bit in your direction. 

But what's interesting about that, cause you asked about diversity in the room is that, that means that I'm also tuning discussions and opinions to people in the room based on maybe stereotypes I have in them. Maybe based on just the composition, the pure composition of the room. So I might be making a point about benefits, for example, and I might not have considered maternity benefits in my point, but I noticed that half the room is women. And so I add that, I tune my message to who I see in the room. And that puts that issue on the table. And now we're having a discussion about that, or that's included in the discussion. And that's just by me as the speaker, noticing the composition of the room. The women in the room didn't have to say anything. They just had to be in the room. And that's part of what could be the advantage of having diversity and paying attention to representation around the table or in the room, because it can really shape discussions even if people aren't constantly bringing up issues. It's just the way that we all start thinking about things when the people who are most salient look a certain way.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It does help both for us tuning our messages. And I wonder if it will help for us to present our view to different groups and different audiences in a way, enabling us to try to tune our communication and message to the different people. One of the powerful points that you make, you say that we are not really that good at putting ourselves in other people's places, even if we have shared experiences. But in leadership that's really important.

So the question is how can we be better at trying to understand other people's perspectives, Vanessa?

Vanessa Bohns: 

This idea of taking perspective all the way back from like Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Anyone who's read that book, one of his points is you should take other people's perspectives. And we've talked about how bad we are at that a few times now. And part of that is because when we try to take someone else's perspective, we're basically searching our own heads and trying to figure out what someone else is thinking. We're drawing on our own experiences which could be biased and could not match someone else's experiences. We're drawing on our own ideas of who this person is that may be based on biases and stereotypes.

When we're trying to figure out how someone took something we said, we were motivated for them to take it in a certain way. So, that shapes how we think that they're likely feeling about something. So as long as we're trying to take someone's perspective, by searching our own heads, we're always going to make mistakes. 

And so some researchers, Nick Epley, and some of his co-authors have suggested something slightly different, which is instead of taking perspective, he talks about getting perspective. And the difference there is really simple. It's instead of searching your own head, you actually get into somebody else's head and you do that by asking them. How do you feel about this? How did you take this thing that I said? Will you share some information with me on this survey or in this feedback? And it's basically this way of getting so much more accurate about what someone else is thinking simply by actually asking them what they're thinking.

Once it's said it seems so obvious, but in fact, I think we tend to be overconfident about our ability to get into other people's heads and fully appreciate their perspective. When in fact, if we just asked, we would be so much better off.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is powerful. And I know you give an example of sometimes when people have gotten divorced, they think they can relate to someone else that has gotten divorced, not understanding that people can have drastically different experiences. So asking sounds simple, but it's powerful if we truly ask and truly listen and try to understand.

So lots of great insights Vanessa, and you spend your time both researching, studying research. I find when I have conversations with my wife and my girls I love growth mindset and leadership and talk about it. And at times they say, whoa, whoa, whoa, stop right there. This isn't a podcast or you aren't doing training. So in your own life I know you are a mother, a life as you have your own personal relationships. How has this research on influence impacted you? How do you lead your life differently based on the research you've done?

Vanessa Bohns: 

I think the biggest thing is that one of the points I make in the book is that we all have things that we look back on in our lives. And it's like some word or comment someone made that just stuck with us. And we keep thinking back to it and it could be years later and it could be the stupidest thing that the other person doesn't remember. It could be something positive that we reflect on and it makes us happy. It could be something negative that we worked for years to overcome, even though it was like a side comment that somebody made. I think thinking about it that way, thinking about the fact that I have things in my head that reverberate from offhand comments people have made, that means things that I say have this potential to be the things that reverberate in someone else's head.

So each time I say something, my kids may remember years from now, that weird thing that I said that I wasn't even thinking about. And I think the weight of that really does make me try to choose my words and also ask more, or like, how did you take that? How are you thinking about that? To try to resolve any sort of unresolved thing that might be going on that might cause years long issues.

So I think it's just that I try to be more careful on the things I say in the sort of important content. I worry less about how articulately I say things because that's another part of the research. It's not really about being super articulate. It's about the actual content of what we say and the intention behind it. And I think I'm just much more careful to make sure that whatever my intention is is coming across the way I'm hoping when it lands on someone else's ears.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's a powerful way for all of us to think about our communications with people around us. There are sometimes for us throw away statements whether in our personal lives or at work or at the grocery store, but those throw away statements can stick for years either as a positive or as a negative in the minds of the people that we've shared them with.

 Now Vanessa, where can the audience find out more about you and your work?

Vanessa Bohns: 

So I have a website, vanessabohns.com and Bohns is B O H N S. I'm also on Twitter and Instagram @profbohns is my handle. Yeah. And you can pick up my book anywhere now. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is an outstanding book. I love all the studies and we can spend hours talking about them, but people need to read the book and find out about it. Now you also mentioned Twitter, so a little birdie tells me you might like Bronski beat. 

Vanessa Bohns: 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

So how did you come to liking Bronski beat?

Vanessa Bohns: 

I think it's probably one of those free trial stereos things in my car where you get the 80's channel. I love it. That's what I always miss. I never re-up on the free trial, but I always miss that 80's channel. And I'm pretty sure that's where it came from. Although I grew up in the 80's. So it kind of makes sense. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's good enough because part of what we like is similarity. And when I heard you like the Bronski beat, I was like a small town, boy. I liked the Bronski beats so she must be good after all.

Vanessa, I really appreciate the conversation, I appreciate the outstanding book. We have more influence, it's understanding that influence and the power it has on the people around us. And for those who are leaders, understanding those roles and power roles within the organization and the impact they can have. Thank you so much for joining this conversation Vanessa Bohns 

Vanessa Bohns: 

Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.