Seven Simple Ways to Subtly Influence Others


It had been a long day of work and travel, and it was going to get longer.

Due to weather issues around the country, flights across the eastern half of the U.S. were delayed and canceled. It was snowing heavily in Denver, where I had just landed to find my connecting flight canceled. I quickly found my way to the end of the long line of other harried travelers who were trying to figure out how to get to their destinations.

It wasn’t a picture of serenity.

As I got closer to the front of the line, I watched the ticket agents behind the desk take one complaint after another. I noticed how normally sane travelers were angry, screaming, and generally blaming these ticket agents for their issues as if those agents could change the weather or magically make a plane appear.

I decided I would take a different approach. Yes, I was tired and I was frustrated, yet screaming didn’t seem like a kind —or particularly effective —approach to the situation.  As I thought about what my approach would be, I overheard the person directly in front of me. It would be hard not to, because he was outlining everything that this airline had done wrong and why he would never fly this airline again, and apparently it was all the fault of this agent. He was headed to the same place I was.

Nancy, the ticket agent, was pleasant and remained calm in the face of the unrelenting grief the passenger was sending her way. And then I heard her response: “I’m sorry, sir, but the next seat I have is on the flight first thing tomorrow morning. I truly apologize.”

His response was less than pleasant as she gave him the news and his new ticket (along with some travel vouchers).

I was next.

“Hi Nancy,” I said, smiling. “I’ll tell you that I don’t envy you on a day like today.  You should be paid double for the extra effort and having to put up with angry and frustrated people.”

She smiled as I continued.

“I’m going to make this easy. I’m not going to hold you accountable for the weather, OK?  Plus, I’m going where that last guy is going, so you won’t have to do too much, assuming there is another seat on that morning flight.”

Smiling back at me, she asked, “Indianapolis, right?”

I nodded.

“Just a second,” she said as she focused on her monitor, fingers flying.  She kept typing and looking, and looking again.  After a couple of minutes, she looked up at me and smiled as she handed me a ticket.

“Here you go, Mr. Eikenberry, it’s not for tomorrow. The flight leaves in 45 minutes.  I have a first class seat for you.”

I took the ticket, and shook her hand, looking her in the eye.  “Thanks, Nancy,” I said, “I really appreciate it —and so does my family.”

We had to sit on the runway for a couple of hours before we could take off, so I didn’t get home until the wee hours of the morning. As we were preparing to leave, the pilot said that we were the last plane leaving Denver that night. The snow was closing the airport and the other planes in line were going back to the terminal.

The next flights left two days later.

I have no idea whether that first class seat was available when Nancy was talking to the man in front of me; the seat could have just opened up. All I know is that Nancy, while she couldn’t control the snow, could control who got seats.

This simple story highlights seven stunningly simple things you can do to have greater influence and impact every day. Let me share them with you now.

Use a person’s name. Anytime you have a chance to use someone’s name, do it.  Someone’s name is sweetest sound in the world to them. Learn names, remember names, and use them.

Acknowledge people. Let people know that you notice what they are doing.  Simple acknowledgment is sometimes more valuable even than agreement.  In many situations, you may not agree with someone, but you can always acknowledge them and their opinion.

Be interested in them. Most passengers, when they got to the front of the line, began venting about their needs. I had those same needs and concerns, and yet I focused on Nancy. Be interested in other people and they will, in return, become more interested in you and your needs.

Say please and thank you. These are some of the first words our parents try to teach us to use. You know why? Because they are important —and they work.

Be kind. This is another lesson you learned at a young age. Sometimes it is hard to be kind, especially if you are angry or frustrated. It is even more important when it is more of a challenge.

Smile.  Have you ever noticed that when you smile, people tend to smile back? And, further, have you noticed that when you are smiling you automatically feel better? A smile takes no time, virtually no effort and is free, plus it is a fantastic positive influencer.

Assume the best. I believed Nancy was doing the best she could. I had been watching her for several minutes and she was efficient and pleasant even in the face of the verbal onslaught she was receiving. When you assume the best in others, you give them a valuable gift.

Zig Ziglar’s most famous quotation seems like an appropriate way to close this piece.  He wrote, “You can get everything in life that you want, if you will help enough other people get what they want.”

Look back at this list of seven simple things you can do.  None of them are about you; they are all about the other person. If you want to have greater influence, be more other focused — because in the end, influence is always about the other person.

photo credit Matt McGee

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  1. says

    Fantastic post Kevin.

    As you rightly point out people often lose all sense of perspective. I remember having a trip back from the US to UK delayed by a couple of days a number of years ago so just enjoyed the extended holiday.

    Sounds like your strategy worked a treat.

    Duncan Brodie

  2. says

    I am a HUGE believer in the power of using simple human kindness. I had a gate agent “volunteer” me to take another flight so that I could get a free ticket for a future flight when my original flight was oversold. The words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ have more mileage than most people realize.

  3. chris saeger says

    Your story reminds me of a time I watched you participate in a negotiating simulation based on prisoner’s dilemma. I remember you got the highest score in the group based on assuming the best in your negotiating partner.

    This is not your strategy. It is who you are! Thank you for the story and the memory.

  4. says

    There are certain things you do not realize until you read them, and through your article I have come to realize those few but interesting and effective way to leadership.
    Thanks for sharing it in such a delightful manner..!

  5. says

    What a terrific article. I believe I use these same techniques more than most people but I fall short too many times and need a reminder. Your Zig Ziglar quote is one of my favorites. I also like Winston Churchill’s “I am an optimist. I don’t see any use being anything else.” Thank you for posting!

  6. T Bliss says

    Great story. People at my company are amazed at some of the results of my dealings with government officials. It is a due to what I have always believed in, showing courtesy, respect and empathy to others regardless of the situation. Also works very well for harried cashiers, wait staff, etc.

  7. says

    Thanks for sharing your story, Kevin. I appreciated not only how you handled the situation, but how you identified the key ways of interacting that influenced the agent to be even better at the job.

    I had a similar experience waiting in line at the ticket counter, but in my case I was standing behind someone who was so irate he appeared to be ready to leap the counter and physically assault the agent. I took the risk to intervene by using some dispute resolution skills. Within a few minutes the passenger became very calm, alternative arrangements were eagerly accomplished by the agent, and both were grateful.

    The downside to this story is that I thought I’d write to the airline and suggest that they might consider training agents in conflict resolution skills to reduce the likelihood of altercations, assaults, and increase passenger satisfaction in difficult situations. The company eventually wrote back, provided me a voucher to fly anywhere the airline went, but never mentioned anything about considering dispute resolution training.

  8. Marcia Norman says

    Great post Kevin, as usual.
    I do agree with you, it’s all about the other. I even stretch a bit further if I may, when you talk about leadership it’s all about a genuine interest in people.
    I definitely think that when you act in a kind way you set things in motion with the same energy, you know Darwin’s law.

  9. says

    Kevin – I LOVED this post! Having just finished reading “The Go-Giver” (Bob Burg and John David Mann) – your blog was not only a concise summation of the concepts in that book, but your personalized recount really drove the lessons home. Thank you for sharing your experience and the ever-timely reminders.

  10. Sarah says

    Thanks for a great article. Every word rang with truth and sincerity. I am a team leader and it is difficult sometimes when I am having a bad personal day not to take it out on my team. Your article is a good reminder to me of how to treat other people in my online project management group.

  11. Shelley Rogers Landes says

    Great post! I love it! I always tell my kids, “…you get what you give. If you expect that worst, that’s what you will get.” Manners have been HUGE for me as I raise my two boys and I can’t tell you what kind of doors have opened for them because of impecable manners. Strangers chase me down to tell me how kind and polite they are and I believe that the kind of response will make up for their short comings down the road.

    Manners, eye contact, true engagement, kindess, smiling, respect… seems to be a lost art these days….especially around the holidays.

    Thanks for a great read!


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