From TJ Magazine: Lessons from military intelligence

Emma Dutton MBE has tips from the frontline to improve your influencing skills.

Reading time: 4 minutes                              

Improving your ability to influence is a core tenet of learning and development. I have collated 10 tips to help you on your influence journey which you can easily apply in day-to-day situations.

These are not new skills and you may already practice some of them. They are used by military intelligence operators in the most extreme environments, with the most demanding customers, the tightest of timelines, and the highest of stakes – people’s lives. So, we know it works!


What’s more, this can be applied to any interaction or business situation, not just against the Taliban.

1. Understand and empathise with the individual you are trying to influence

The world is full of opportunities to use this skill. Whether on Twitter, at work, or simply around the dinner table, contemporary society is divided on so many levels about so many subjects.



The middle ground in many cases has all but disappeared and we are left instead with two diametrically opposed camps hurling insults, refusing to compromise and becoming more entrenched in their views the more they are argued against.

This is known as the backfire effect, when the more an individual is challenged, the more set in stone their perspective becomes, because they have invested time, effort and emotion into it.

People wish to be seen as consistent and reliable. To admit fault could compromise the insecure among us. Individuals then become less objective and instead seek out information which supports their point of view. This is called confirmation bias.

Empathy can be shown in many ways. If you decide to try out your influencing skills at the dinner table and someone asserts an opinion you find disagreeable, try to acknowledge their perspective and empathise with them. 

It can be easy to disagree with someone from the get-go but if you understand what their opinion is based on, you can come to a mutual understanding.

When someone is so entrenched in their own mindset that they won’t concede an opinion, to the point of ridiculousness, then remember these words from John Le Carré’s fictional spy-master, George Smiley.

Of his Soviet nemesis he said, “That’s how I know he can be beaten, because he is a fanatic, and the fanatic is always harbouring a secret doubt.”

They are used by military intelligence operators in the most extreme environments. So, we know it works!

2. Look for ways to have a more comprehensive understanding of a person

Profiling is not something which can be done comprehensively in a single meeting. It should be done over time and in a variety of situations to gain the most depth.

It should take into account various factors which comprise the individual, such as:

  • Their attitudes to certain work practices and to the values of the organisation.
  • What they like to do in their spare time.
  • What they like/don’t like. This could be anything from how they take their tea to how they are best presented with information for ease of assimilation.
  • Their desires; what they want from their career and their work environment.

By using a framework such as this, you never need have a wasted conversation with an individual, as every interaction becomes an opportunity to fill in any blanks you may have, and there are always some.

3. When assessing people, leave assumptions and bias behind

You should always have the ability to question and scrutinise your own opinions and beliefs. This type of critical thinking relies on having the emotional self-awareness to know when your brain has taken the easy option and instead of forming an opinion based in objective fact, has fallen back on what it thinks it already knows or has been told.

The roots of our assumptions and biases go very deep into our psyche, and to challenge them can be a testing and very revealing exercise.

Remember, when expressing an opinion based on assumption, we are telling people more about us than we are learning about them.

4. Build rapport and take an interest in that person

Due to its intangibility, rapport doesn’t have set metrics. The best way to measure it is to pay attention to the type of conversation you are having with someone.

Levels of rapport can range from small-talk and social rituals at one end, to deep, meaningful conversations at the other.

If you are stuck at the small-talk level and need to improve your rapport with someone, it could be time to increase the amount of personal information in your conversations.

Upping the ante with personal information is a good way to create a connection with someone as it encourages them to reciprocate, which in turn engenders trust.


This is an excerpt from the November 2019 issue of TJ. To get the full insight, subscribe here.


About the author

Emma Dutton MBE is co-founder and managing director of Applied Influence Group


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