Incito Leadership and Executive Coaching


Lessons on Influencing from Chinese Water Torture


Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip. We’ve all heard that sound in the middle of the night to only drag ourselves out of bed and shut off a dripping tap because we can’t bear it any longer. Chinese water torture is a process in which water is slowly dripped onto a person's forehead, allegedly driving the restrained victim insane. I often use the metaphor of Chinese Water Torture when talking with clients about influencing their teams, peers or more senior leaders in the organization. The idea isn’t to drive them insane but to drip in your ideas in a way that makes them easy to support and say yes to. Here are some of the lessons that this metaphor brings to help us learn to influence:

Know your audience

You can’t torture someone without knowing what they care about. You can’t influence someone without knowing what they care about. Understanding who makes up your audience will allow you to carefully plan your message and adapt what you say to your listener.

Drip in ideas

Small consistent actions have a big impact over time. A bucket of water dumped on a rock has negligible impact. A drip consistently every few seconds over years will leave a hole in the rock.

Ever hear of “too much too soon”? It means that too much of something is given before the other person is ready for it. We often get passionate about our ideas and present them fully from start to finish and then ask the other person to say yes to an ask to move the idea forward. Surprisingly, “no” is the answer you get instead. Where did you go wrong? Too much too soon is often the challenge. Most often, if your idea is well considered, the “no” you receive may be telling you the other person hasn’t worked through their thinking yet. Dripping your ideas is about helping the other person come along in their thinking as you did when you conceived your idea. One of the best ways to drip in an idea is to ask a lot of questions. Your insight may have been fast or slow to process when it came to you. Recognize that the person you’re presenting to might be slower to process your ideas.

Dripping ideas is about breaking down your ideas into first helping the other person see the challenge you’re looking to resolve. Only once they see the challenge and agree it’s a challenge can you then begin to start dripping in the benefits of resolving the challenge. Next, drip in ideas on how to resolve the issue and how those ideas are meeting the concerns, values and impact your audience cares about.

Timing is everything

Timing is the skill of judging the right moment in a situation to do something.

Spread out your drips and ideas so the other person has time to think about them and come to their own conclusions and allow questions to bubble up. Consideration of other events can greatly influence your desired outcome. Choose the moments you share your ideas and when you ask for decisions and actions. Ask at the right moment. Listen carefully and recognize when your audience is saying yes, yes, yes to what you’re presenting. Now is your moment to ask for buy-in.

Did you know that there is much debate as to the origin of the term “Chinese Water Torture”. It may have never originated from or ever been used by the Chinese. It may have been a torture that came from the Spanish Inquisition or the term may have come from Houdini’s sensational escapes from his “Chinese Water Torture Cell” or from some other origin altogether. Drips of ideas over time through literature and pop culture have led us to this popular term yet no one knows exactly how it came to be. The goal is the same with your ideas. Just drip them in consistently and steward them forward.