Politics, Dead Mothers, and Your Ability to Influence

Illustration by istockphoto.com

With political debates and messages at fever pitch, I found myself reflecting on one of the most important abilities in both personal and professional life: the ability to influence, to get your good ideas understood and accepted.

Even more challenging is when the other person — or a whole group — has a very different perspective, based on (in your opinion) limited knowledge or experience.

How do you get the other person up to speed,without overwhelming them with information or trigger defensiveness, before you even get to your main take away message?

When you know something is true, but others don’t

Whether it relates to politics, social issues, or workplace issues, I can imagine you’ve faced that frustrating dilemma.

Let’s focus on the workplace for a moment. Haven’t you had experiences where:

  1. Your boss had a very strong position about something and treated it as “The Truth.” You knew you had more context and background related to the issue than your boss. However, you didn’t know how to present your point of view in a way that didn’t come across as overtly challenging, so you just kept quiet, feeling frustrated.
  2. Your team reached a consensus which you believed would result in disastrous results. You weighed in, but it made no difference. You felt like screaming “Are you crazy?” but realized that’s not an effective influence strategy. You also cared deeply and didn’t want to simply stay silent until after the plane went down in flames.

I’m sure you can think of many more examples where felt in your gut that your position was more true or viable than the consensus. You can probably remember situations where you knew you had more knowledge, context, or expertise, and yet despite this, nothing you said seemed to make a dent in the other person’s armor of belief.

By the way, I get it that sometimes, despite our feeling of “knowing” that something is true, we can be dead wrong. I’m not talking about one of those times.

A lack of influence by “the savior of mothers”

As I reflected on this issue of how a person presents their point of view in a way people who see things very differently can hear, I found myself remembering a fascinating story. It was about someone who had discovered something that could prevent mothers from dying during childbirth, yet no one listened.

The story involves Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th Century Hungarian physician who would later become known as “the savior of mothers.” His is a fascinating, but tragic, story of a man who saw things that others didn’t, but couldn’t convince his contemporaries.

He was what today would be called a Chief Resident who oversaw two maternity clinics in Vienna. He noticed how one clinic had an average maternal mortality rate of about 10 percent due to puerperal fever, while the other clinic had less than 4 percent.

The two clinics served the same population; women would be admitted to each clinic on alternate days. The reputation of the first clinic was so bad that women would beg not to be admitted there. Other women would pretend to give sudden birth en route to the hospital so they could get child care benefits but not have to give birth within the hospital.

Semmelweis was perplexed and intrigued by the fact that women giving birth on the streets would have lower rates of mortality than those giving birth in the first clinic.

Why was this?

A pariah in the medical community

The long story short was that he eventually deduced the cause of the discrepancy, and all the unnecessary deaths. The cause was doctors in the first clinic also performed autopsies and did so before delivering babies. They also, as was the common practice, did NOT wash their hands between procedures.

They were infecting the mothers with bacteria from the corpses.

He connected the dots when a colleague died after he was accidentally poked by a scalpel during an autopsy.

When Semmelweis instituted a hand washing protocol using chlorinated lime, maternity deaths dropped by 90 percent in the first clinic. Yet when he shared his life-saving findings, he was not greeted with appreciation nor acclaim.

He was fired from his position and became a pariah in the medical community. His preposterous claims of germs being the cause of death and hand washing the cure were ridiculed by his peers.

When I first read about Semmelweis, I saw it as a classic case of “the arrogance of ignorance.” His peers demonstrated the close-mindedness that is symptomatic of ignorance. Rather than feel curiosity about this strange, new proposition, they derided it as obviously ridiculous.

Ignorance, or just reacting to a jerk?

It reminds me of an old Steve Martin skit on Saturday Night Live where he plays a Medieval doctor (actually a barber who practiced medicine). In the skit, he says in a rather smug way how far medicine has come from the old day and their outdated views:

You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just 50 years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”

While the arrogance of ignorance and unwillingness to take in new information that challenges one’s world view obviously played a significant role in the fact that Semmelweis’s well-researched and well-documented findings were not embraced, there’s another reason.

He was a jerk.

Those are the words of Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author of Better.

Article Continues Below

I remember listening to Seth Godin’s Poke the Box and hearing him tell the Semmelweis story and sharing this “rest of the story” and how my whole perspective on this tragedy changed.

The importance of explaining the “why”

Godin cited two reasons for Semmelweis’s failure to take a really important idea — a life-saving one — and convince others to embrace it.

While I want to focus on the “jerk issue,” I do want to mention the other reason Godin cites, because it’s an important one.

Semmelweis’s other problem was his unwillingness to explain the context and the “why” behind his message. He felt the value and veracity was so self-evident that he didn’t need to do so. He made what the authors of Influencers identify as the problem with communicating “the take away message” of an important idea.

If you leave out the story, the reasoning, the drama, you leave out the components that make a message compelling and ultimately influential. It’s like trying to capture the awesomeness of a movie you saw or a scene that was funny, but the other person doesn’t get it. They “had to be there.” It’s the same with not providing the backstory.

But the main point I want to share is the issue about Semmelweiss the messenger, about how his approach sabotaged his important message and what that means to you and me.

Although Dr. Gawande framed it as Semmelweis being a jerk, I think, to be fair to Semmelweis, that it sounds like he acted in really “jerky” ways because he was so outraged at his peers’ unwillingness to take seriously something that could save lives. Imagine knowing something can help so many people and have your message ridiculed and your personhood savaged.

Influence is about making a difference

That might help to explain his less than How to Win Friends and Influence People approach to communicating his position, such as starting off letters to colleagues with: “You, Herr Professor, have been a partner in this massacre…” and “…I declare before God and the world that you are a murderer.

While we might not be as extreme in how we introduce our very different point of view, it IS easy to come across in off-putting ways when you believe strongly in something where the stakes are high. When we do, what might be a game-changing idea or trajectory-shifting perspective gets rejected.

Our ability to influence, to offer new perspectives in receiver-friendly ways depends on our ability to become a messenger equal to our message. Our effectiveness in life and our ability to lead depend on our ability to influence.

No influence, no difference do we make.

We can learn a lot from the world of political argumentation and from Dr. Semmelweis’s tragic story about what NOT to do. Let’s explore what TO do.

How do you share your point of view?

While I typically try to write “How to” articles with suggestions, with this one, I want to ask YOU, how do you share your point of view with someone, or a group, who holds a firm opposing position?

  • What have you done that was effective?
  • What do you try to be mindful of doing?
  • What do you try NOT to do?

If you have a story that illustrates this, I think everyone interested in this topic would benefit from hearing it.

Alternatively, if you have a story where someone else opened your eyes to a new way of perceiving a situation, especially one in which you were closed-minded about, that would be equally fascinating.

So, enough of my point of view. Let’s hear from you.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.


2 Comments on “Politics, Dead Mothers, and Your Ability to Influence

  1. David, great insight. While many have different ways of sharing their points of view, I believe the method through which this sharing is done may be the real problem. First, many people may not have the opportunity to even voice their opinions. Next, even if they do, it may be way past the point where that opinion even matters. So, what’s the solution? Real-time coaching and feedback sessions which allow both sides of the table to give their input in a civilized and constructive way. When employees do this, they’ll not only be able to state their opinion, but others will eventually learn how they work, making future sessions easier to get through.

  2. As director of Institutional Research at a small college, I occasionally present information that may not be flattering: a program with lower than expected positive results, a course with a high failure rate, etc. I try to remember that people will often feel “blamed” and explain, up front, that we often deal with results that include choices and actions (or lack thereof) on the part of others that are beyond our control. In the case of public presentations, I provide advance notice about the results to the individuals whose programs/courses are involved so that they don’t feel “ambushed” at the presentation. Another thing I try to keep in mind is that data, no matter how fairly generated and presented, is subject to different interpretations.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *