The Value of Persuasion and Influence

A Conversation With Risa Mish

At Cornell, Risa Mish developed the MBA core critical thinking course and several leadership courses with a focus on persuasion and influence, which will be the topic of her keynote. She also is the founder and faculty adviser for Cornell’s Johnson Board Fellows Program, which pairs second year MBA students with nonprofits as board members.

Mish earned her juris doctorate cum laude in 1988 and her bachelor of science in communication with distinction in 1985 from Cornell. After distinguishing herself as a student, she joined the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett as an associate. A few years later, she became a partner in Collazo Carling and Mish LLP, where she was in charge of recruitment and practiced labor and employment law for the firm’s management clients. She also developed litigation prevention training for the clients.

Like many prospect research professionals, she followed a serendipitous path to her current career. She loved practicing law, but when her son was diagnosed with a health problem, she and her husband decided to make a change. They met at Cornell and decided to move back to Ithaca for the quality of life there. She got a job heading up alumni affairs at Cornell’s law school and later became a major gift officer. Mish says she “worshipped the research staff because of all they do to prepare gift officers for visits.” She also is familiar with our work through her husband, who is a program officer with the Cornell Law School Individual Giving Program and has performed prospect research.

Through her work at the law school, she made some contacts at the Johnson School. She transferred to its alumni affairs office and, during the course of her work, learned of a teaching position. She joined its faculty as a lecturer in 2007 and says “teaching is the great privilege of my life.” Her bio and curriculum vitae (which don’t mention her alumni relations and development work) can be found online.

While working at Cornell, Mish began building her consulting practice. She presents training and advises clients on critical thinking, problem solving, strategic leadership development and influence, managing change and a wide array of employee relations topics. Her first clients were former law firm clients and referrals from them and former students. Her nonprofit and corporate board memberships and trainings also led to referrals and other keynote engagements.

Mish is passionate about working with clients to help them reframe their perspective to address challenges. She says the way her mind works gives her a “good feel for attacking problems systematically and providing possible solutions that are context appropriate.” Her work with nonprofits has the “extra bonus and benefit of furthering missions that are very relevant.”

As a consultant, she both teaches and uses persuasion and influence. Coming out of law school, she had the impression that “she who has the best facts wins” and had to learn — like Mr. Spock in Star Trek — that humans don’t use pure logic to make decisions. Additionally, she discovered that some people don’t have good reasoning skills and their decisions can be based on unknown factors that have nothing to do with the topic under discussion. Mish notes that it is essential to have a command of the facts, but not sufficient. As a teaser, she adds that she will talk about “the two things you absolutely need in addition to the facts” in her keynote at the conference.

She went on to note that persuasion and influence are all about the other person at that point in time. As researchers, we create a portrait of someone from historical information, and that can actually be misleading because it may not answer the question of what is of concern to the person right now. She says the classic critical thinking error she sees most often is using an argument that would influence the influencer. A good case focuses on the other person, who they are, how they think and what they need or want.

According to Mish, one of the cornerstones for building influence — whether up, down or sideways — is listening. She says Steven Covey’s habit number five in "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” "seek first to understand, then to be understood,” captures this. Her instruction about critical thinking places a huge emphasis on beginning the process with understanding the context in which a problem has arisen. And while the person’s perception of the persuader has an impact, she says how questions are framed is sometimes more important than the actual questions.

Mish compares good framing to questioning a witness in court. When you want a specific answer, you use cross-examination techniques to ask fact-finding questions like “Isn’t it true that on that night you were at a nearby restaurant?” To learn about another person and how to influence them, you need to use direct questioning techniques that allow a witness to give answers that create a context that guides ensuing questions.

Mish’s students learn to ask such open-ended questions. More importantly, they learn to demonstrate that they have really listened and understood the answers. The answers and that understanding are the basis for building persuasive conversations with the other person.

When people think of influencers, they often think of great orators. But Mish says, “It is a great myth that shyness and persuasiveness are incompatible. Shy people are great listeners but need to understand that this strength is the basis for being an influencer. You have to believe in yourself as an idea proponent; self-defeating behavior can undermine persuasion before the conversation even starts.” Negative self-talk, such as “I am not high enough in the organization to be heard” or “I am too new here to give my opinion,” undermine belief for both parties. Her advice is to know where you excel and use those strengths to manage and offset anxiety. According to Mish, successful people are just better at managing their insecurities.

Her own process, which Mish teaches in her critical thinking classes, is to understand an organization and be clear about its context: why it exists, its scope, its mission, its stakeholders and clients, its structure and its culture. She says it is critical to determine if the challenge the organization is facing is a problem or the problem. Then she does a root cause analysis based on the problem and its context. She says the benefit of being an outside consultant is that she can recognize ways to reframe the organization and its challenges that insiders may not be able to see.

While there are no common solutions, the most common challenge she faces is “helping clients through the pain of changing a strategy that no longer is optimal because of change in the organization’s micro or macro environment.” She defines success as helping an organization adjust to its new normal.

Christine A. Mildner, CFRE, has had a long and rewarding career in health care and education fundraising. Currently, she is the senior philanthropy analyst at Legacy Health in Portland, Oregon. She also is a consultant and principal of Strategic Edge Resource Consulting. She was an editor of the Internet Prospector and has volunteered with Connections throughout her career.

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