Thanks to some pretty amazing technology, scientists are now able to dissect what goes on in meaningful conversations. Our gestures, timing, and other subconscious behaviors transmit important social signals.

“If we watch the give-and-take of conversational turn-taking and gesturing, and carefully measure the timing, energy, and variability of the interaction, we can find several examples of honest signals.” ~ Alex Pentland, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World

Pentland’s research reveals four key honest signals that occur in converversations which can be effectively measured:

  1. Influence
  2. Mimicry
  3. Activity
  4. Consistency

How Is Influence Measured?

How can we detect how much influence we’re having in a conversation? Answering this question can help us negotiate a salary, make a sales pitch or score a promotion.

Influence is particularly important for leaders charged with persuading others. It’s an indicator of dominance. Studies of negotiations confirm that the person who holds the floor has an advantage (to a point).

Controlling the pace of a conversation allows us to influence its outcome. We can speed or slow our speech, varying the pace by milliseconds. We can create or eliminate gaps in conversation. These tiny time variations are perceived by others’ conscious minds only indirectly (as intuitions). Our conversation partners can tell that we’re insistent, highly attentive and invested in directing the flow of conversation.

Here’s an example: Can you remember a time when you were called on the carpet by an angry supervisor? The boss likely raised his voice, rapidly fired questions at you and demanded explanations, yet cut you off before you could finish speaking. You felt pushed and pinned down by the barrage of words. The boss, clearly dominating the interaction, used these “verbal pushing” techniques to control — and influence the outcome of — the conversation.

Sales pitches and other attempts to persuade others are more moderate examples of influence. Variations in verbal pace are so fleeting that they’re imperceptible through conscious processing. We intuit that the other person is insistent, paying keen attention and interested.

We use our influence to assess others’ attitudes and interest level. In one study of 46 salary negotiations, researchers found that those who controlled conversation patterns were perceived as the influential parties.

What are your thoughts about detecting influence in a conversation? I’d love to hear your questions or concerns. I’d love to hear your opinion on this. In the meantime, you can reach me here or on LinkedIn.