Influence Pathway: Appealing to the Relationship AKA Who Would Take a Bullet for You?


When I first started thinking about influence and how it works, I was almost exclusively interested in how I could get lots of people I barely know to do something specific. Coming from a background in environmental stewardship, I had already tackled the challenge of trying to inspire entire organizations to use energy more responsibly, or getting voters to care about an issue and vote accordingly. When I thought about influence, it was about moving mountains.

Then I started to read up on influence, and the scope of where influence is relevant expanded for me. Now I think really intentionally about influence pathways - the different and specific approaches we can take for our objectives. One of the pathways that struck me was Appealing to a Relationship because it’s so simple, personal, and direct… and it works on your friends.

In the simplest of terms, Appealing to a Relationship is the pathway you take when you call up a friend and say, “Hey, I need a favor…” The expectation is that your influence target (your friend) will absolutely do whatever you’re asking because of the relationship you have with him or her. Obviously, relationships are valuable above and beyond their influence target potential, but thinking about influence with respect to your friendships can open your eyes to the value of relationships in general.

According to the research, Appealing to a Relationship is the fastest and most effective way to influence (see Elements of Power). That said, it comes with a few caveats: it only works on the small set of people with whom you have personal relationships, it only works for certain influence objectives, and you only get to play the card a few times before you wear out your welcome.

The first caveat - it only works on the set of people you have personal relationships with - is relatively intuitive. You don’t call up a stranger and say, “I need a favor…” You call up someone you know.

The second caveat - it depends on the influence objective - is where it gets interesting. Depending on your relationship, you can ask for different things. You can probably get a neighbor to grab your mail for you while you’re on vacation, but you might think twice before having them dog sit… that chore you’ll save for someone you have a stronger relationship with. You can probably ask your 2nd and 3rd degree friends to show up at a party you’re throwing, but when it comes time to get bailed out of jail, there’s only a few folks you’d consider for that one. And then, there are the folks that’ll take a bullet for you.

I mean… seriously… think about that for a second… Imagine the kind of influence you must have with someone when you can trust that person will literally jump in front of a bullet for you.

The final caveat - you only get to play the card a few times before you wear out your welcome - should feel intuitive again, but there’s nuance to it too. Relationships are bi-directional. The more you give to a relationship, the more you can ask of it. Think about it like a piggy bank. Every time you drop change into the piggy bank, the pool of coins inside it grows. When you make a withdrawal by asking for a favor, you take money out again. The number of times, and the size of the deposits you make ultimately impact the size and quantity of favors you can ask.

And so… How do we leverage Appealing to a Relationship appropriately? Given that it’s fast and super effective, it’s definitely an influence pathway we want to master and have in our toolbox.

  1. Build more relationships: It seems rather obvious, but it has to be said. The more people in your universe that you have relationships with, the more you can leverage your relationships to get things done.
  2. Make your relationships count: Quantity is one thing, but quality matters too. The stronger your relationships are, the more you can leverage them. Be present with people when you’re with them. Make the time you spend with them count. Invest (remember the piggy bank!) in your relationships, and give to them everything you can. Building relationship capital is your big-money move here.
  3. Appeal to your relationships thoughtfully: Just like you manage your finances thoughtfully, so too should you manage your relationships. Be aware of your piggy-bank levels for each of the relationships in your life, and only draw from the piggy banks that are full at the time. Then do a few favors in return to re-up your account.

As you continue on in your WorkLife, pay attention to when and how you Appeal to a Relationship as your modus operandi for getting someone to do something. Notice where it feels natural, and where you struggle to make the ask. Try to identify why you’re struggling, and see if it has anything to do with the size of your savings in your relationship piggy bank.

When and how have you used Appealing to a Relationship as a way to influence someone?

-- Stephanie Judd, Cofounder, wolf & heron