Two weeks ago, I attended a public dialogue at the International Monetary Fund between Managing Director Christine Lagarde and President Michelle Bachelet of Chile. I did not know much about Bachelet, except that she is the first female president of her country. While waiting, I was picturing her as a forceful, powerful iron lady. Instead, she appeared on stage as more of a mother-like figure, smiling and waving at the audience.
During her talk, Bachelet was soft-spoken and humorous. Once in a while, she would ask the audience members for help translating Spanish words into English. She kept us engaged and made us laugh. At one point, I could not help uttering, “I like her.” My neighbors nodded in agreement.
I wonder, what makes Bachelet so likeable? Her status? Her power? Neither. Instead of holding tight to her status, she was, in fact, letting go of her power by seeking help from the audience, and this is exactly why she was so warmly welcomed with such applause.
This might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t presence and charisma conveyed through strong, assertive, and dominant mannerisms and words? Often yes, but not always.
Establishing power through powerless communication
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania discusses the surprising power of powerless communication in his bestselling new book Give and Take. He says that powerless communication can often be quite powerful. Individuals who adopt the powerless communication style speak in ways that reveal vulnerability, yet build connection. They tend to ask questions rather than providing solutions; speak tentatively instead of boldly; admit their weaknesses, rather than just tooting their own horns; and seek help instead of imposing their views on others. These behaviors seem to characterize Bachelet’s demeanor during her talk.
In Grant’s intriguing TED video, he shared his inspiring experience of employing powerless communication to build prestige in front of a class of Air Force colonels and Army generals twice his age.
Grant’s strategy was this: instead of striving to boast his credentials, he made himself seem vulnerable by joking about his age. He called out the elephant in the room— his age— and later, in sharp contrast, demonstrated his extraordinary competence in a way that doubtlessly surpassed others’ expectations.
According to his book, there are two effective paths to exerting an influence. One is dominance, where we impress (or perhaps suppress) others through exhibiting authority and gravitas, a.k.a. powerful communication. The other is prestige, which is an outcome of respect and admiration. Many of us assume that the key to acquiring power is to deliver a confident pitch. Reality, however, may often suggest the opposite: the more you try to dominate others, the more resistant they become. In a world bombarded by commercials, political ads, and fund-raising talks, the public has become increasingly immunized against strong messaging.
As indicated in Richard Shell and Mario Moussa’s book The Art of Woo, building power is to “win others over without coercion, using relationship-based, emotionally intelligent persuasion.”
How do we “win others over” using powerless communication? Grant suggests the following:
- Instead of maintaining a veneer of perfection and high achievements, be open about your vulnerabilities and imperfections. Be authentic and even self-deprecating at times. People are more likely to open up to others similar to themselves. When they no longer feel that you are attempting to pressure them, they may let their guard down.
- Use less forthright statements and more tentative language. Frame your opinions as suggestions or questions. This shows that you have others’ best interests in mind.
- Rather than giving answers, seek help and advice. Advice-seeking prompts others to commit to you—often subconsciously. Nadler et al’s research even shows that individuals who regularly seek advice and help from knowledgeable colleagues are perceived more favorably, compared to those who never do so. But, here is the catch: advice-seeking only works if it is genuine.
There is an important caveat in the arguments above: exposing chinks in your armor does not always work to your advantage. Powerless communication is only effective if you pair your modesty with capabilities.
A telling experiment led by Elliot Aronson tracked audience reactions to participants in a game show. When the high-performing contestants spilled coffee on themselves, the audience liked them more. They were obviously smart, but their clumsiness made them appear also relatable and human. By contrast, when the mediocre performers spilled the coffee, the audience was significantly less forgiving. Powerless communication could undermine the image of those who underperform, while strengthening the reputation of top achievers. This phenomenon is called Pratfall Effect.
Theodore Roosevelt once said: “speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
In the context of powerless communication, it is pivotal that you master your strengths before disclosing your soft spots.
Photograph by Sonny Abesamis via Flickr, available here.
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