You Can Lead a Horse to Water: How to Effectively Influence Others

We know that old saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” What about helping him realize he’s thirsty? This simple statement captures the essence of influence.

We often try to control people’s behavior—their actions, decisions, agreements—by leading them to the place we want them to be. We direct and cajole, provide logic and data. We want to give the answers, and then move on. As leaders and coaches, we want to provide solutions that will solve problems for our employees and clients—but if we focus on leading them to solutions, we may be missing out on an opportunity to help them identify the true problem.

Consider a different approach: help them identify a problem to solve, or help them solve it for themselves.

effectively influence othersWhat if we helped the horse focus on his state of being? Is he fully satisfied? Are there any gaps in his physical sense of wellness and health? Once the horse determines, as a matter of fact, he is thirsty, we can lead him through an exploration of how he might solve that problem.

Ultimately, one of the solutions is to willingly follow us to the water. It works because he made the decision to act, not us. The decision was based on his own insights and realizations, not on ours. For clients and prospects, this may involve a bit of digging—ask the right questions, and help them identify the issues that are underlying the problem they perceive. Help them realize that they are thirsty for a learning culture, for improving business outcomes, or for increasing agility and collaboration on their teams.

Much work has been done on the power of persuasion – selling skillsnegotiating skillsrelationship skills, diplomacy – and it all revolves around one’s ability to meaningfully connect with another and gently or overtly influence their direction. Focusing the dialogue on uncovering an unmet need is the best way to agree that a solution is required, and then you work together to explore options.

People are motivated by three primary drivers: autonomy, mastery and relevance. The notion of making up our own minds is a powerful incentive.

Maslow identified the hierarchy of needs. It has been proven that once the basic needs are fulfilled (physiological, safety, love), we look for social fulfillment, increased esteem (being respected) and progress towards self-actualization.

In Your Brain at Work, David Rock articulates the research that shows the activation of brain activity when we perceive choice – very different from conditioned apathy when we don’t have choice. Research with rats, monkeys, dogs, and yes, humans, shows that there is an inherent need to feel we have choice. Without it, we become apathetic and despondent, and even put our own well-being at risk. To continue with the equine metaphor, the mule digs in its hooves.

To influence effectively, it is critical that the other person knows that the decision to act is entirely their own. They have a choice. It is also important to note the value you provide in distilling the options in order to facilitate the ease with which someone moves toward a solution instead of being paralyzed by the overwhelming array of choices.

One of the most effective ways to influence another person, at work or at home, is to enable them to arrive at their own insights when faced with a goal, challenge or issue. We can advise, direct or mentor when subject matter expertise and experience is needed.

However, the majority of the time, the most impactful interaction happens when one leads the other through their own exploration of needs, wants and barriers.

The power of that process and the ultimate conclusion and associated action steps, once committed to, is far greater than the traditional ‘how-to’ guide to success. This drives accountability to the choice and increases the likelihood of successful outcomes.

The next time you are frustrated by a client, employee, spouse, child or peer and you want to tell them what to do to make it better, remember the horse. Help him realize that he’s thirsty and how much he wants a drink of water. He will willingly follow you. Or perhaps, he’ll lead you both to an even better oasis, yet undiscovered.

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