Think about the most influential person in your organization. Why is he or she so influential? Is it because he is smarter than everyone else in your organization? Or because he is so charismatic? Is her influence a result of the power and authority that she wields, or the eloquence and articulation of her speech? These and other factors influence our perception of influence. And, to a great degree, influence is a matter of perception. Although certain qualities, such as a dynamic personality, may have an almost universal effect on people, not every single person will react to a speaker in the same way.

Some of the skills we use to influence groups can be easily learned and applied,others cannot. Some of the behavior patterns we exhibit in group settings are learned through the long process of socialization and cannot be easily broken. If these behaviors are negative, such as shyness or lack of confidence, then the individual will participate less than another participant who exhibits positive behaviors.

The result of lessened participation in a meeting is a concomitant reduction in influence over a group. You can't influence anyone if you don't communicate. And studies have shown time and time again that those who talk more have more influence,regardless of what other personality or intellectual skills or attributes they may bring to the table.

Despite the fact that it may be difficult for us to teach ourselves how to be charismatic or smarter, there are many skills that we can learn to make ourselves more influential in group meetings. The following list is by no means an exhaustive one. Make it a point to monitor your own patterns of group interaction and determine which behaviors have a positive effect on your influence and which behaviors have a negative influence. Once you have identified these different behaviors, you can take definite steps towards increasing the frequency of your positive behaviors while decreasing the frequency of your negative behaviors.

Faster and Louder

You have no doubt experienced the passion that is generated by a meeting participant who is so excited by the topic that he can barely contain himself. His passion is so strong that he talks faster and louder,not consciously,but merely because he has so much to say about the topic and because he feels so strongly about it.

Group members who talk faster and louder are generally much more influential than their less passionate counterparts. The main reason for this is that group members who speak faster and louder tend to naturally dominate a group's talk time. And, as we have already discussed, the person or persons who dominate a meeting's talk time tend to also be the most influential in the final meeting outcomes.

Clearly, one way you can become more influential in meetings is to speak louder and faster. The key to doing this is not to just turn up the volume, but to be fully prepared and intimately familiar with the discussion topics. This knowledge will help give you the confidence to speak out in the group and to peel yourself off the wall.

Overcome Gender-Specific Personality Traits

There is not doubt that males and females exhibit different interaction behaviors in group meetings. Take, for example, the tendency for men to interrupt speakers, and for women to refrain from interrupting speakers.

An integral part of the socialization of males is the development of the need to compete with their counterparts to have their ideas heard. It is not unusual for men to interrupt the other group members to make their points. We do this instinctively, without even noticing the fact that we do it.

Women, on the other hand, have traditionally been taught that it is rude to interrupt. There is, therefore, a tendency for women in meetings to wait for their turn to speak. Unfortunately, in a meeting full of males who are all interrupting each other to make their points, that turn may never come. Women often wait for their turn. Men generally take their turn.

Despite the time-worn stereotypes that women always talk, and men tend not to talk, research has clearly shown this not to be the case. On average, women in a group discussion setting tend to talk roughly one-half of the amount of time that men do. What's really interesting about these findings is that the women in the group equaled or bettered their male counterparts in the following key areas: subject area expertise, verbal skills, and intelligence.

One way to overcome this problem is for the meeting leader, or any other participants, to call attention to the offending behavior, and request that the perpetrator refrain from cutting off the other participants. If this strategy doesn't work, female group members may have to be willing to take their turns, just like their male counterparts, rather than waiting for them.

How to Disagree

Despite all the pressures to conform that we face in our society, believe it or not, it is not a sin to disagree with the status quo. The basic American right of freedom of speech is generally considered to be the foundation of our great nation. The characteristic shared by all governments that seek to control their citizens is intolerance of dissent.

Many organizations are not much different than the government of post- Mao China or of certain neo-fascist Latin American countries. Instead of encouraging freedom of thought and expression, many companies actively discourage it. Whether the leadership in an organization recognizes it or not, no one person has all the answers and, although the corporation's conventional wisdom may support one particular point of view, that doesn't mean that there is only one right point of view. It takes all kinds of ideas to make an organization great.

As meeting participants, we should never be afraid to express ourselves or present ideas that we think will be of benefit to our organizations. Understandably, it may take more guts in some organizations than it takes in others. If a meeting participant truly believes in himself, however, and is willing to be an active participant in a meeting rather than a passive bump on a long, then he should never hesitate to speak his mind. The successful meeting manager will always actively seek to make contributions to the meeting process rather than allow herself to be a silent victim of the meeting process.

The question becomes not whether or not to disagree but how best to disagree. Obviously, confrontational tactics are not the best way to communicate your opposition to the status quo. Confrontation only leads to withdrawal by the other group members or to confrontation in return. Neither of these do anything to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings. Indeed, there are few better ways to cause a meeting's forward progress to come to a screeching halt.

The best approach to take when voicing disagreement is to be diplomatic. You will want to be firm yet nonconfrontational. Calmly describe the basis of your concerns, and then patiently provide the reasons why your point of view offers advantages that the other, more politically acceptable points of view, don't offer. Present data that supports your claims. Try your best to maintain a calm, neutral stance on the issues, and let your ideas speak for you. If they are good ones, their advantages will shine brightly through the haze and cobwebs of the status quo.

Above all, know when to push your points harder, and when to back off. While everyone has a right and a duty to disagree if they feel they are right, this doesn't necessarily mean that you should sacrifice yourself on the altar of truth to make your point. We have seen too many good people fall because they were right, and the status quo was wrong. In every disagreement there is a point of no return that you cross only at your own peril. This point of no return represents the apex of where the meeting leader and other participants have heard what you have to say, acknowledge it, but are ready to move on. In some cases, crossing this imaginary point may elicit only mild rebukes or the impatient glares of your co-workers. In other, more extreme cases, crossing the line of no return can earn the lucky offender a humiliating chewing-out by an irritated manager or, in the worst cases, dismissal from the firm.

It is obviously not in your interest, or in the firm's interest for you to lose your job over your pursuit of the ultimate truth. As long as your company is not breaking the law, it is generally a far better approach to make your point,as passionately as you desire,and then move on once it is clear that you are barking up the wrong tree. While martyrdom wears well for poets and saints, it does not wear well at all for those of us in business. Although we may think that we are indispensable, many of us who thought our companies would not be able to function without us have found, much to our surprise, that they can get along just fine.

Bill Cote is a Montreal-based freelancer and public speaking coach.

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