A councillor’s workbook on Influencing skills

A councillor's workbook on influencing skills thumbnail
This workbook has been designed as a distance learning aid for local councillors. It is intended to provide councillors with insight and assistance with the key skills which will help you to be most effective in your role. The workbook should serve as a useful reminder of some of the key skills, approaches and tactics that make for good influencing skills.

Introduction

This workbook has been designed as a distance learning aid for local councillors. It is intended to provide councillors with insight and assistance with the key skills which will help you to be most effective in your role. Some of the content may be of most use to more newly elected councillors, but nonetheless if you have been a councillor for some time, the workbook should serve as a useful reminder of some of the key skills, approaches and tactics that make for good influencing skills. It may even challenge you to reconsider how you have approached aspects of the role to date.

Those councillors who are new to local government will recognise that there are many aspects to being an effective ward or division councillor. The workbook will help you to get up to speed on the main areas that require focus and attention. In effect, it should provide you with some pointers on how to develop a style and approach that you are comfortable with, and that enables you to be most effective in your day to day duties.

The workbook can be used as a standalone learning aid or alongside other material you may cover such as e learning modules or sessions within your own council. It is recognised that each individual must decide how best to use and develop their influencing skills, based on individual preference and confidence. As such, the workbook should serve more as a direction marker rather than a road map.

You do not need to complete it all in one session and may prefer to work through the material at your own pace. The key requirement is to think about your own approach to influencing other people – how the material relates to your local situation, the people you serve and the council you represent. In working through the material contained in this workbook you will encounter a number of features designed to help you think about how you use and gain influence in your ward councillor role. These features are represented by the symbols shown below:

These features are represented by the symbols shown below:

Guidance icon

Guidance – this is used to indicate guidance, research, quotations, explanations and definitions that you may find helpful.
 


Challenges icon

Challenges – these are questions or queries raised in the text which ask you to reflect on your role or approach – in essence, they are designed to be thought-provokers

 


Case study icon

Case studies – these are ‘pen pictures’ of approaches used by other people or organisations

 


Hints and tips icon

Hints and tips– a selection of good practices that you may find useful.

 


Useful links icon

Useful links – these are signposts to sources of further information that may help with principles, processes, methods and approaches.

 

A list of useful additional information and support is also set out in the Appendix to the workbook. This workbook is complemented by an e-learning module of the same name. To access this module please go to our e-learning platform for councillors.

Influencing to get what you want

Guidance icon
Influence: “have effect upon...action of person upon another... person exercising power.”

The Concise Oxford Dictionary

Paradoxically, the most effective way of improving your ability to influence others starts with yourself, and the interpersonal, presentation, communication and assertiveness skills you possess. In other words, learning to adapt your personal style when you become aware of the effect you are having on other people, while still being true to yourself. Behaviour and attitude change are what’s important, not changing who you are or how you think and feel.

Guidance icon
Being a councillor is increasingly about your ability to influence other people and partners rather than the direct decisions you take. So for example, in integrated council services, it is your ability to work with partners like health to develop a shared way forward and persuade them it is in their interest to work with you. For me, successful influencing is not just about having a good argument for your point of view, it is about finding the common ground and developing win-win arguments, gaining trust and having that emotional connection with people as well as a rational one.

Cllr Emma Hoddinott, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council

Challenges icon

Challenge 1 – your ability to influence

Think about your day to day role as an elected councillor. Write down a list of the situations in which you need or want to influence other people:

Now write down anything you find difficult about influencing people in those situations:

The remaining sections of this workbook will consider how you influence other people and some of the approaches and tactics you can think about to improve your effectiveness.

The nature of influence – your interpersonal skills

Influencing is about understanding yourself and the effect or impact you have on others. Though it can, on occasions, be one way, the primary relationship is two way, and it is often about changing how others perceive you for the better. Within this, it is important to recognise that influencing is about moving things forward without pushing, forcing or telling others what to do. All too often, if you seek to influence people through bullying or coercion you will not succeed in winning their support – and their lasting impression of you is likely to be negative.

Good influencers are likely to display a variety of personal characteristics, which can help to positively influence other peoples’ perceptions, eg:

  • energy and enthusiasm
  • a calm, even tempered, disposition
  • an ability to be flexible and adaptable to different people and situations
  • strong listening and observation skills
  • an ability to act impartially or with neutrality
  • self confidence and gravitas
  • demonstrate empathy and perception.

Influencing – what it isn’t

  • bullying
  • dictating
  • coercing
  • manipulating
  • pushing
  • bludgeoning
  • haranguing
  • forcing.

However, the key abilities for anyone seeking to influence others are the requirement for good judgement and effective social and information skills.

Hints and tips icon
Key influencing skills

Social skills – the ability to interact successfully with other people in any given situation.

Information skills – the ability to have information relevant to the debate, knowing what the issue is but also understanding the context in which it occurs.

Judgement – an ability to assess all aspects of the information content and social skills experience in communicating with people.

Of course the way that you approach people and the particular style you adopt in trying to influence can take a variety of forms, depending on your personal preferences and the situation you find yourself in. Being a good influencer will require you to adapt your approach depending on how directive you wish to be and whether you believe you should appeal to people’s emotions or intellect to achieve your desired result. This is about judgement on your part.

While we use a variety of words to describe the different roles that people adopt in influencing others, all can be useful and legitimate tactics for you to employ as a councillor.

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Different styles of influencing
 

 

Graph showing different styles of influencing both passive and active

Challenges icon
Challenge 2 – influencing the people you deal with

Look again at the different ‘influencing styles’ shown in the diagram. Identify which named styles you might choose to adopt in the following circumstances:

You are running an advice surgery in your local library and have been approached by an irate, elderly woman who wants to complain about the council’s waste collection service - all you want to do at this stage is convince her to calm down and give you the facts.

You have taken on the task of helping a newly elected colleague to find his feet as a ward councillor. He has no previous experience of the role and you are looking to encourage him to follow your advice.

You are at a community meeting discussing ways in which the council can help to promote social cohesion in your ward. The debate is lively and helpful, but you now wish to get agreement on the way forward.

Building rapport – influencing others in the way you present yourself

We have already stated that influencing people requires you to think about how you come across to others. This is often described as being about ‘making a good first impression’. It takes just a quick glance for someone to begin to evaluate you when you first meet. In those first few seconds, other people will form opinions based on your appearance – your body language, demeanour, mannerisms and the way you are dressed. While often superficial, these first impressions can have a lasting impact on your ability to influence other people.

Creating a good impression is about building trust and rapport. This is not easy when you are meeting people who you have either never met before or have met before, but do not know well. The following tactics can help:

  • Present yourself appropriately – your physical appearance says a lot about you, so think about what you wear and how others might perceive your overall look. This does not mean losing your individuality, but spending time thinking about what is appropriate for the people and the situation you are likely to face.
     
  • Relax and be yourself – help others to relax by demonstrating how at ease you are. Be confident, and use your body language to project your self-assuredness, eg stand tall, smile, make good eye contact and greet people with a firm handshake.
     
  • Be courteous and attentive – most of us know that good manners and polite, attentive behaviour contribute much to a good first impression. However, do not let yourself down by forgetting to switch off your mobile telephone or dominating the early part of the conversation. Some early small talk can help to break the ice and remember the maxim – “I don’t care what you know, until I know you care about me”. In other words, if you want to influence people you have to build rapport with them first.

This may sound a bit daunting but just think how you react when you meet people who are seeking to influence your opinions or actions. The same rules apply.

While building trust and rapport is often about personal chemistry, remember that none of us can hope to influence all other people. It is often suggested that some 30 per cent of any given group are likely to be ‘our’ type of people (what we might call ‘your tribe’),with another 30 per cent being people you are unlikely to build any effective rapport with (your ‘polar opposites’). The remaining 40 per cent of the group could fall into either camp. On this basis, you have the potential to build good trust and rapport with up to 70 per cent of any group you meet – that is more than enough for any vote conscious councillor!

Guidance icon

Influencing building trust and rapport

orange pie chart spilt into three segments, wording  in each segment - your tribe, polar opposites and neither your tribe or polar opposites

Guidance icon
It is important to remember that councils have far less direct control these days over things that affect our constituents. As a local representative it is very important to be able to work with other bodies that affect the lives of our residents, eg police, health and voluntary bodies. Just one example – I been pressing the Health Board for a new GP surgery in the village. This has involved Health Board officials from the chief executive down, also the church authorities who owned the potential site and a local housing association, the present site owners. I am now chairing one of the health board groups working towards the completion of the scheme. After over 10 years we are expecting completion next year

Cllr Colin Mann Caerphilly County Borough Council

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Influencing is increasingly important because of the many and increasing complexities in local government. More than ever councillors do have real opportunities to influence strategic decisions about how mainstream services are allocated spending just by getting a sentence changed. Simply a word in a recommendation can have a big impact later. But how many meetings and discussions have you been in where you have a bullying chairman and no one has read the recommendations or thought about them. Or community meetings where residents are clear on their view and councillors get into trench warfare with no outcomes achieved for anyone. 

Always consider that perhaps there is another way. So don’t just listen. Ask open questions rather than give direct orders. When possible do not stamp down straight away on discussion but talk in terms of people’s interests and be genuinely interested in them. Don’t dismiss real differences or give up on the objectives. Seek solutions where possible and get clear agreement on your joint position.

Councillor Jerry Roodhouse, Warwickshire County Council/Rugby Borough Council

Effective questioning  

To prompt dialogue you need to use a range of techniques:

Closed questions – direct questions that require a one word answer, eg ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Open questions – the ‘how’, ‘why’, and ‘what’ type of questions that require a more expansive response.

Leading/limiting questions – questions designed to limit the range of possible answers, eg ‘Is it true that...?’

Soft commands – prompts which sound like questions to elicit information, eg ‘perhaps you could explain...?’

Paraphrasing/summarising – repeating what you have heard and asking for a confirmation of accuracy.

Influencing – building trust and rapport

Having built some rapport, your next step is to prompt discussion with the person or people you are seeking to influence. This is primarily about creating the best conditions for others to engage in debate and come forward with their opinions and suggestions.

Only through dialogue can you understand what people think and where they stand on any given subject. Crucially, if you are to win over doubters and detractors, this will also enable you to identify any perceived ‘distance’ between what you believe and the expressed views of others. The two main ways of prompting discussion are to:

  • ask open and searching questions – to probe, test and challenge others through effective questioning to enable you to get to the ‘heart of the matter’ under discussion
     
  • listen actively – to encourage people to speak through ‘active listening’, eg using nods, eye contact, silence, smiles and comments to prompt others to share their views. 

Ultimately, your objective is to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people you are seeking to influence, ie to convince them on both an emotional and intellectual level that the way forward you are proposing or endorsing is the best solution. Much of this will depend on your own communication skills and your ability to win over people in difficult group situations (both covered later in this workbook). However it is also important to stress that people respond to arguments and information in different ways, depending on their perusal preferences.

As a result, a tactical appeal to someone’s reason, affection, intuition or desire will often help to generate the support you are seeking, eg imagine trying to convince a disgruntled council tax payer about the case for funding a new leisure park – while a challenge to their sense of reason may generate only a lukewarm response, an affectionate appeal on the basis of the pursuits and interests they may have as a potential user of the park is more likely to convince them of the need for such an amenity.

Hints and tips icon
Hints and tips Listening habits that do not help to influence other people
Pseudo-listening – appearing attentive, perhaps even saying ‘yes’ while thinking about something else.
Turn-waiting – waiting for others to finish so that you can say what you think. As you plan your response, you are not listening.
Selective listening – filtering out the bits you do not want to hear or do not agree with.
Defensive listening – looking for faults in other people’s views or areas you can disagree with.
Insensitive listening – taking people’s words at face value without trying to understand what is behind them.
Guidance icon
Influencing ‘hearts and minds’
reason
– mind/logic
affection – heart
intuition – gut feel/second sight
                    desire – passion
Challenges icon
Challenge 3 – winning peoples ‘hearts and minds’

Imagine you are trying to influence people in the following situations. Having prompted some discussion you are now trying to win over a few remaining doubters. What tactical appeals might you try to influence these people (eg reason, affection, intuition or desire)?

You are seeking support for the grant funding of some new goalposts in a local park. You know your fellow ward councillors are keen sports fans.

You are at a community meeting to promote a new council campaign to report racist incidents in local schools. You believe that most of those voicing concerns have an innate sense of ‘fair play’.

You are arguing for the council to introduce a new scheme for the restoration of a well-loved local monument. Most objections are on the basis of the costs of the scheme.

Guidance icon
What works with one group of people is quite often useless with others. So it pays to develop a range of skills depending on who we are trying to influence. There also tends to be a hierarchy when it comes to securing the outcome you want. If helps enormously if you have secured the help of officers by influencing their thinking beforehand when it comes to trying to influence a group of your fellow councillors on a particular issue.

When it comes to influencing other organisations evidence is key. A compelling case can often be crafted if it is littered with facts which are beyond dispute.

Influencing those we represent is one of the hardest yet most important aspects of a councillor’s work. We want to be the local champion pressing the case for residents but we know what is possible and deliverable and this sometimes falls well short of a resident’s expectations. Being able to manage those expectations is an art in itself and often a combination of confidence, understanding and a solid grasp of the details will provide a great platform for shaping public opinion.

Developing the necessary techniques is time well spent as the most influential councillors are amongst the most valuable to a community and to a council.

Councillor Simon Edwards, South Cambridgeshire District Council

Challenges icon
Challenge 4 – influencing through communication: avoiding the pitfalls

Consider how, rather than influencing people in a positive way, the following might impact in a negative way on your reputation and that of the council:

You issue a press release supporting the council’s introduction of a ban on the playing of conkers in local schools to prevent accidents to children.

You give a television interview outlining why you believe that people should use their cars less and make greater use of public transport.

Influencing to get your point across – the importance of effective communication

Much has been written about the importance of good communication in conveying ideas, direction, information and inspiration in local government. It’s about more than just facts and figures – effective communication can help local people to understand what their council is about, what it has achieved, the plans it has and the role that individual councillors play.

Your personal success may also be heavily dependent on your ability to communicate– influencing people to get involved, turn out at elections, voice their satisfaction (or concerns), contribute to activities in the community and be better citizens. In effect, it’s a chance for you to demonstrate your community leadership.

On the flip side, poor communication is a waste of your time and that of the people you are trying to influence. It may also be a waste of the council’s limited financial resources, eg a badly judged leaflet, an expensive and ineffective consultation activity, or a poorly advertised community meeting.

Poor communication risks alienating the very people you are trying to influence. Alongside the fact that you fail to achieve what you intended, you may be seriously damaging your long term relationship with key people. There are risks from this to both the council (an erosion of its corporate reputation) and to you personally (it could lose you votes).

The Local Government Association (LGA) has produced a wealth of material available from the website that can help improve your communication skills. In addition the Political Skills Framework defines competencies from councillors. This includes some ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ indicators to guide your personal communications.

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Political Skills Framework – communication

 

Political skills framework table showing positive and negative indicators

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Challenge 5 – planning to influence people through communication

Outline how you would plan to influence people through communication in the scenario below:

The council has started a high profile campaign to encourage people to minimise their domestic waste and reduce the amount of refuse being collected for recycling and disposal. You have decided to champion ‘waste minimisation’ in your ward to show what can be done and encourage greater efforts by everyone in the local community. On this basis:

What do you want to achieve from the communication?

Who is your audience?

What is your key message (s)?

In what format are you going to communicate for the best impact?

By far the most common and useful way of influencing people is through face to face communications, ie meetings, talks, conferences, advice surgeries etc. In earlier sections of the workbook we discussed the importance of creating a good impression, building rapport, generating discussion and winning ‘hearts and minds’. Other things you should consider, when planning to influence people through face to face communications, include:

  • Having a good ‘opening’ in any talk or meeting to grab the attention of the audience, eg using arresting statements, facts, anecdotes, quotations or rhetorical questions. Avoid the use of excuses, negative statements, excessive detail and clichés. 
  • Having a structure to what you want to say, eg preparing and practising, focusing on the agenda required, sticking to time and following a logical sequence of key points. 

Avoid making it up, reading from a script, gabbling and going over your allotted time. 

  • Using good content, eg clear visual aids, slides to display brief points/prompts and handouts of key information. Avoid excessive use of PowerPoint slides. 
  • Maintaining the interest in what you are saying, eg speaking clearly, varying the tone of your voice, altering the speed of your delivery (not too slow or fast), smiling and maintaining eye contact with those listening. Avoid repeating yourself too often and watch the signals you give out through your body language, eg slouching, looking bored, yawning etc. 
  • Responding positively to challenges and objections, ie actively listening (eg nodding and using “Mmm…”, and “Yes” in response to questions), using questions to check your understanding of the objection being made (this sometimes heads off the challenge in itself) and politely signalling when you disagree (eg “As things stand…” and “What I would say is…”). Avoid saying, “Ah yes, but…” when challenged. 
  • Finishing any meeting or presentation with an effective ‘ending’, eg voicing a conclusion, asking for a decision and summarising major points or next steps. 

Avoid finishing without a conclusion or ending with “I hope I have…”

Being assertive – being influential in difficult group situations

Influencing people can sometimes be a difficult and demanding process. People respond in different, sometimes unpredictable, ways when others are trying to influence their thoughts and actions.

Arguments are common and conflict is not unusual. This is true enough in one to one situations but is particularly so in group situations. A number of psychologists have put forward theories of ‘group dynamics’ to try and explain this phenomenon. A basic appreciation of how ‘group dynamics’ works is useful in understanding the ways in which groups of people tend to behave when brought together on a shared task or activity.

This can have a big impact on your ability to influence councillors of any newly formed group.

Guidance icon
Argyle’s theory of ‘group dynamics’

Michael Argyle, a social psychologist, set out his theory of ‘group dynamics’ in a 1969 book entitled, ‘Social Interaction’ (Tavistock Press). He observed that different groups of people tend to go through a similar lifecycle of stages in coming together and interacting, to produce a team performance. His theory has been adopted by many psychologists, trainers and consultants since that time.

In his theory, Michael Argyle categorised four distinct stages in the ‘life’ of a group:

1. Forming – the group comes together. People find out about each other, consider their objectives, discuss ideas and possible tasks and reflect on their own roles within the group. It is usually a very sociable time in the life of the group.

2. Storming – as the group begins to settle, individuals get to know each other and may start competing for status and roles. Disagreements can occur and where some people may try to assert strong opinions or leadership tactics, others may withdraw. If tensions are not mutually dealt with at this stage, they tend to disrupt group communication and activity and, most importantly, mutual respect for the roles of participants. To reach stages (3) and (4), conflicts need to be resolved.

3. Norming – after the more tense stage of ‘storming’, the group usually begins to settle as participants find a common approach to the task that all can agree on or accept (this is where unsettled conflicts can become a problem, as they tend to reoccur at this point). Action plans begin to emerge and people find space to begin working on tasks.

4. Performing – this is the stage when the group achieves its optimum efficiency and the task is achieved. Recognising that people often behave differently in groups can help you, tactically, to be more effective in influencing others.

Much of this is about watching and listening to group behaviour and exercising your own judgement about when to be assertive and intervene and when to sit back as discussions unfold and people exchange views or come into conflict.

Challenges icon
Challenge 6 – group dynamics: a help or hindrance to your influence?

Reflect on the four stages of group behaviour outlined above. Does this sound like any meetings or group situations you have been in recently? How successful were you in influencing the views or actions of others? How might your understanding of group dynamics help you to tackle the task differently another time?

Other approaches that can help you to be more influential in difficult group situations include:

Setting a positive tone and modelling the ‘norms’ for group interaction.

Being yourself, without defensiveness or hidden agendas, and sharing your experiences and feelings to establish empathy.

Describing what you see rather than being judgemental, eg “on the basis of what you’ve said, you don’t look to be supportive…”

Being empathetic – showing you understand people’s situation, needs and feelings, ie trying not to give advice, judgements or interpretations.

Maintaining your assertiveness, but avoiding displays of unnecessary emotion (weakness or aggression) and unhelpful behaviours, such as irritators (eg “I think what I’ve said is very reasonable”), immediate counter-attacks and talking over the top of people.

Keeping people and problems separate, ie recognise that in many cases other people are not just ‘being difficult’ – real and valid differences can lie behind conflicting positions. By separating the problem from the person, real issues can be debated without damaging working relationships.

Exploring options together, ie being open to the idea that a third position may exist and that you can get to this idea in collaboration with others.

Listening first and talking second – to stand any chance of influencing others you must first understand where other people are coming from before feeling you must ‘defend’ your own position.

Focusing on getting the support of the ‘early adopters’, ie there will usually be a proportion of people in any group who are open to new ideas or new ways of doing things. Their support can often be influential in encouraging the more resistant to come forward, over time, in support of your views or action plans.

Influencing in groups

Who contributes the most to group discussions – are they aware of it and can you target their support

Who are the silent people – is their silence about dissent or fear and could your intervention bring them around to your point of view?

Who appears to have the ‘ear’ of the prime movers and can you influence the latter by getting these on side?

Who are the rebels, bullies, critics and scapegoats – can you employ different tactics to appeal to each?

What is the atmosphere in the group – could you intervene to create more congenial conditions and win friends as a result?

Have the discussions reached a sticking point – could you broker some discussions around negotiating, bargaining, or compromising to move things forward?

Who is tending to dominate – could you generate greater support by standing up to these individuals?

Influencing other people is often more about changing your attitudes and behaviour than it is about changing theirs. Spending time thinking about your own approach and the interpersonal, presentation, communication and assertiveness skills you possess can help you to be more effective in influencing others and getting what you want. All politicians need to influence others – it is the very lifeblood of political debate and a cornerstone of our democracy. But it is also a skill that you need to hone and develop as an effective councillor. 

Final summary

Influence and leadership
 
Guidance icon

“Do you first want to be a positive influence in the world? First get your own life in order. Ground yourself in the single principle so that your behaviour is wholesome and effective. If you do that, you will earn respect and be a powerful influence. Your behaviour influences others through a ripple effect. A ripple effect works because everyone influences everyone else. Powerful people are powerful influences...”

John Heider, “The Tao of Leadership

 

Challenges icon

Challenge 7 – where do you go from here?

Look back over the material contained in earlier sections of this workbook and consider the following:

a. What key action points can you identify to improve your influencing skills, ie what three or four things might you start doing, keep doing or stop doing?

b. Have you identified any gaps in your knowledge or shortcomings in your other personal skills? If so, please set out these below and identify how any further training or development might help you, eg further reading, research, attending courses, coaching, mentoring, work shadowing, etc.

Appendix – sources of further information and support

Useful publications

The LGA’s Councillor’s Guide’, www.local.gov.uk

The LGA website has many pages discussing community leadership and a number of publications, a series of case studies, the Knowledge Hub, and development programmes for councillors and council officers.

For more information please go to our Highlighting Political Leadership page

‘Social Interaction’, Argyle, M., Tavistock Press, 1969

Useful website

The LGA website is an invaluable source of help and advice for all those in local government and contains guidance and case studies on all aspects of the councillor role.

Councillor viewpoints for Councillors Edwards and Roodhouse taken from First magazine issue 605 .November 2016