The last couple of weeks in politics have been both disturbing and fascinating. We have all watched the horrific scenes following the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the debates between the biggest powers in the world on what to do about it. So far no decisions have been made. If you're the premier of a country, wanting to persuade the others of the merits of your arguments, what do you do, and what can we learn from watching?
Do not depend on the hope of results - in the end it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.' Thomas Merton
There's little that we like better than a surprise in politics. So often the same decisions are made by the same people and we lose interest because the outcomes are so predictable. It's like a detective story to which someone has told you the ending. Many times in the last couple of decades we have witnessed decisions being made to go to war. An atrocity is occurring and it is incumbent on any decent, right-minded government to intervene. And that intervention must involve us, and it must be military. So the country must have really sat up when parliament voted against military action last week, I know I did.
We probably won't know exactly how it came to be that Ed Miliband changed his mind until somebody's memoirs are published in ten years' time, but you can be pretty sure that it wasn't something that came to him when he was alone in the bath. At least one person in the cabinet had threatened to resign, we're told, but where the other pressures came from we do not yet know. One thing is certain though, there were influences at play.
But how do you influence someone to do what you want them to?
Peter Block, an American author and speaker on organizational development, developed a framework for influencing in situations where there are several stakeholders. Underlying the framework were two assumptions:
1. There is no 'one size fits all' way of influencing people, you need to have an individualised strategy for each person.
2. There are two crucial determinants of success in influencing, agreement and trust. Agreement relates to the matter in hand, while trust relates to the longer-term basis of the relationship.
He drew a matrix combining these two variables and identified four different types of stakeholders:
Low trust High trust
High agreement Bedfellows Allies
Low agreement Adversaries Opponents
First there are the Bedfellows, the people who agree with you on the matter in hand, but with whom you have no long term relationship and therefore trust.
Second we have Allies, the people who both agree with you and you can trust.
Thirdly we have opponents. They don't agree with you about this, but you know you can trust them.
And finally we have adversaries, they don't agree with you and there is no basis for trust in your relationship with them.
Imagine you are Barack Obama and you're trying to get agreement to take military action against Assad's regime. Your bedfellows are probably the leaders of smaller countries who you have no track record with, but who are concerned about atrocities in Syria and agree with you on intervention. Because you have no long term relationship with them, and therefore trust has never been built, you need to be aware that they may change their mind if it suits them.
France has said it agrees with you, and there is some long term trust there. The UK was also your ally, they agreed about intervention and you have a good long term relationship with them, but because parliament has voted against immediate military action they have suddenly moved into the opponents quarters.
And Russia? Well Russia has been a long term adversary. Agreement is low and so is trust.
What to do?
Block would say that you, Obama, should reaffirm what it is you agree on with your bedfellows, that caution on both sides should be put up front, and that you should take care to agree in detail on what you're going to do and how. I would add that there may be some who appear to agree because they want to keep in with you, but may jump ship at short notice if the wind starts blowing against you. It is probably wise not to spend too much time on these, but focus instead on those you trust more.
You would be well advised, Obama, to focus your efforts on your allies in the first instance. Affirm your agreement with them, and the relationship, and you can be open and honest about any misgivings you may have, at least in private. Allies are a good source of advice and support so ask for it.
Opponents might be your most useful stakeholders here. You have a good relationship with them, for example Britain, so you respect their opinion. If they aren't agreeing with you there are probably good reasons for that and those reasons can help you in reaffirming or questioning your own position. It's important to maintain the relationship even if agreement is not forthcoming, they will be there for you another time.
With adversaries, if you can work without them you may be best advised to do that. You could waste an awful lot of time on fruitless attempts to persuade them. But if they have a lot of influence and power, like Russia, it is worth at least trying to find common ground and avoiding antagonising them directly. Throwing down the gauntlet will only strengthen their opposition.
It's interesting to see how this is playing out in practice. Obama was criticised for confronting Russia, as no good could come of it. His administration reaffirmed the US's relationship with France the minute the UK withdrew support. 'France is our oldest ally,' they said. But then, so interesting, Obama suddenly decided to seek approval from Congress. It looked as though he took Britain's concerns seriously and it made him re-evaluate. He also wanted, one suspects, to maintain the relationship.
1. Think of an area of your work or personal life where you want to get something done and to do this you need to influence other people.
2. Make a list of the people who are involved in this area, people whose cooperation would be important and useful to you.
3. Taking each person individually, what do you know about their level of agreement with you, and what levels of trust there are between you?
4. Draw out the Block matrix and, with those for whom you have enough information, place them in the matrix, in one of the four categories.
5. Where you're not sure where people stand, or if you can trust them, make a plan for finding out.
6. Sit back and look at your matrix, it is remarkable how helpful it is to clarify who sits where. What have you learnt?
7. Decide on a plan of action - consolidating your allies, reaffirming your bedfellows, bouncing your ideas around with your opponents, and working out where you're currently wasting your time.
8. Execute.... and good luck.
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Robert F. Kennedy
Make a difference this week!