7 Ways to Use the Power of Powerless Communication

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Have you ever noticed that some people avoid using question marks in their emails? They will say: “Can you call me to discuss.” Or: “When should we meet for dinner.”

I think they’re trying to signal power, but these linguistic bids for dominance never fill me with respect. They just get my back up.

Some people do just the opposite. Not only do they use question marks – they come right out and admit uncertainty: “I could be wrong, of course. What do you think?” They use exclamation points! “Great to see you today!” They even sign off with “xo’s” and smiley emoticons.

This latter group seems to fall into two categories. Some appear insecure or ineffectual. But others are true standouts – the kinds of people who inspire love and trust, who lead with an unbeatable mix of empathy and competence.

I first noticed these dynamics when I worked on Wall Street, where the peremptory style of e-mail seems especially prevalent. But was I imagining things?

2013 07 01 giveandtakecover 7 Ways to Use the Power of Powerless Communication

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Apparently not. It turns out that superstar organizational psychologist Adam Grant, youngest tenured professor at Wharton, and author of the New York Times bestseller “Give and Take“, has been researching this question for years, and has a groundbreaking new prescription for how to relate: the power of powerless communication. (Here is Adam’s fascinating TEDx talk on this very subject).

Grant says that people who pose questions instead of answers, admit their shortcomings, and use tentative instead of assertive speech are some of the world’s most powerful communicators. People who use “powerless” communication styles fall into two categories – some are doormats. But just as many are superstars.

It boils down to this insight: When people think you’re trying to influence them, they put their guard up. But when they feel you’re trying to help them, or to muse your way to the right answer, or to be honest about your own imperfections, they open up to you. They hear what you have to say.

In small group decision making, suggestions prefaced with qualifiers like “This might be a good way to go” have been found to be accepted more often than forthright statements like “Let’s do it this way.”

And among salespeople, powerless communicators bring in 68% more revenue than “takers” – in large part because they ask more and better questions, and listen to the answers. Instead of coming on strong, they find out about the hopes and fears of their prospective buyers. They’re motivated not only by making the sale, but by satisfying those needs. Buyers feel the difference.

If you would like to use the power of powerless communication, here are a few tips:

7 Ways to Use the Power of Powerless Communication
2013 07 01 300x250 quiet patheos 7 Ways to Use the Power of Powerless Communication
1. Be humble but humorous. When the famously unassuming Lincoln was called two-faced during a debate, Grant recalls, he said: “Two faced? If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

2. Ask for help or advice. The other day, I read a Harvard Business Review article online, and was asked to complete a survey. Now I’m a working mom, so I try to make every minute of my screen time count. I ignore surveys. But HBR must have been talking to Adam Grant. “We value your feedback!” they said. “Would you help us make our website better?” There was something in the humility of the request that made it hard to say no.

3. Pair your openness with competence. A revealing experiment led by psychologist 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 competent, yet also relatable: human and imperfect. But when the mediocre performers did the same thing, people liked them less. The takeaway – if you’re doing your job well, people want you to be human. It’s when you’re underperforming that powerless communication backfires.

4. When you communicate with someone, ask yourself three questions: What do you have to learn from them? How can you help them or otherwise express warmth? And can you find ways of letting your true personality show?

5. Frame your opinions as suggestions. “I wonder if it would work to do it this way.” Give people the space to disagree with you.

6. Be authentic. Whatever you feel inside has a way of expressing itself. If you feel kind and open, people will know it. They’ll also sense the reverse. You can’t just slap Grant’s approaches on to an otherwise arrogant self-presentation.

7. Introverts and women, rejoice! This research is great news for two groups in particular: women and introverts, both of whom tend naturally to use powerless communication styles and worry that this is a bad thing in a take-charge world. Based on the evidence, you can stop worrying.

Do you believe in the power of powerless communication?
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*For insights into the powers of introverts from Susan Cain, and updates on her upcoming personal & corporate training sessions for introverts, connect here.
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16 Comments

  1. Heather T. on 04.07.2013 at 10:41 (Reply)

    Thank you for the interesting post, Susan. For me, this style of “powerless communication” works with colleagues with whom I have a track record, who I’ve been able to show my knowledge and competence.

    It doesn’t seem very effective with people I don’t work with very often — it feels like I’m giving them permission to ignore me, and they’re taking it! But I don’t like expending so much energy to become a more aggressive communicator.

    Part of the issue may be the amount of time I spend in contact with the person. If it’s someone I see regularly and we have common projects and goals, I have time to communicate in a more relaxed and reasonable style. When it’s someone that I need something from and I’m trying to reach via email or phone, maybe their attention span is so short and their to-do list so long that the only way I can get their attention is to be more aggressive. (Ugh!)

    I’d love to hear any suggestions from fellow introverts about how they tackle this problem!

    1. Claire on 06.07.2013 at 17:38 (Reply)

      I completely agree with you and would also be interested to hear about alternative tactics. Aggression = severe energy drain. :-/

  2. Amber W. on 04.07.2013 at 21:24 (Reply)

    Appreciate the point you brought up which is the this powerless communication is one of the styles of communications and it does not always work.

    The truth is that there is no absolute truth. It is nice that Susan recognize and promote ‘powerless communication’, because introverts , like myself, are more comfortable and better at it.

    However, recognize it does not always work is necessary so that we will develop and use other more aggressive type of communications when necessary.

    Bottom line is that we should get comfortable with more aggressive style and use it when necessary.

    1. Susanne on 05.07.2013 at 09:01 (Reply)

      Hello Amber and Heather, thank you for your answers. I think they resonate with my experiences. Normally I’m communicating in a heart-driven way (with question marks and exclamation marks), but I learned that sometimes I have to be more aggressive to be heard. – A year ago, I had to do with a municipal employee – I was friendly, but she reacted in an aggressive way. After a while, I was fed up and answered in her way – and suddenly she listened to me and understood me and did what she was supposed to do. I was stunned – and I had learned that I have to use the other person’s language to be understood. I think this lady thought I was weak and she could treat me this way. After I changed my language and used hers, she did understand me.

  3. Red Dog on 04.07.2013 at 22:43 (Reply)

    “Do you believe in the power of powerless communication?”

    That’s an oxymoron. That which you are describing is having the wisdom of knowing when to listen and when to speak – and that requires judgment.

    Those who aspire to impose power over others will attain power, but it will be temporal or fleeting, usually impermanent because it is being imposed upon the subject.

    Communication, when unidirectional (such as in broadcast media or propaganda) is temporally effective but also impermanent. True communication and true ‘respect’ is that of having a dialog – not imposing a monologue. (Genuine RE-spect literally means we are looking at each other – thus generating a form of passive communication – not that of the generally accepted situation that one party is dominant in demanding subservience of the dominated, and calling the relationship that of “respect”.)

    Perhaps you are seeking to express that course of action which is essentially a passive form of communication (and strength) brought about through self-imposed silence. Sometimes the best course of action is to say or to do nothing. As you mentioned in your book, you stumbled upon it at a stressful moment through happenstance and serendipity. “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. (That quote has been attributed to many wise men over time.) ;-)

    Knowledge + experience = wisdom.

    “If you want to change the world, begin with yourself.” That quote has been attributed to Gandhi, but it’s uncertain who first said it. Perhaps it’s another time-worn dictum that is irrefutable. Whomever said it understood the power of individual self-mastery, and valued it over a desire for dominance and influence of the masses. :-)

  4. Katie on 05.07.2013 at 11:30 (Reply)

    I like to think of it as “empowering communication” for both parties. This way, everyone wins.

  5. F. on 06.07.2013 at 06:11 (Reply)

    Hi Susan.
    I am from Iran and I am interested in your writes . Thank u!
    Best

  6. Rico Compagnie on 06.07.2013 at 11:43 (Reply)

    Interesting. I have noticed in the past when sending text messages, that the way you write and use punctuation marks, makes a huge difference.

    I suddenly remember a situation in the past when I texted someone and she interpreted my message differently. I think I should use more emoticons when making jokes.

  7. Billi Girl on 08.07.2013 at 01:17 (Reply)

    I agree with Heather and Claire. Powerless communication is not always effective. I have noticed this does not work with extremely extroverted individuals. I find that I am perceived as weak and easy to take advantage of and it is very draining to work with such people.

    Like Susanne answered, it is best to speak their language. I mistakenly communicated with this type in a very open and friendly manner, asking inquisitively, but it really back fired. What they don’t realize is that we can only take so much, at least this is my case. But I hate getting to this point.

    It’s a balancing act for sure, and as draining as it may feel to wear the more aggressive hat, it is important to have a healthy way of re-energizing afterwards.

    Love the book and your TED Talk Susan! And so nice to read comments from other introverts–we rock :)

  8. Red Dog on 08.07.2013 at 10:09 (Reply)

    “I agree with Heather and Claire. Powerless communication is not always effective. I have noticed this does not work with extremely extroverted individuals. I find that I am perceived as weak and easy to take advantage of and it is very draining to work with such people.”

    If a method is not effective it is of no value to the person who seeks a remedy for a problem. Since you are perceived as being weak (actually vulnerable) there is something about you that is signaling that to others.

    “Like Susanne answered, it is best to speak their language.”

    What do you mean by that? We are all speaking English. :-)

    “It’s a balancing act for sure, and as draining as it may feel to wear the more aggressive hat, it is important to have a healthy way of re-energizing afterwards.”

    Many people who are introverted think their problem in dealing with others is due to their introversion. It isn’t. It’s a lack of assertiveness. The reason you end up feeling drained is because it is mentally fatiguing to be in a situation where you don’t know how to respond effectively.

    ***Assertiveness is NOT counter-aggression.*** It is a set of highly effective, useful skills that is easily learned. It teaches you how to cope through using a few specific skills. Knowing and using them gives you confidence in dealing with commercial situations, your superiors and your peers. After you learn to do this you won’t walk away feeling “drained”.

    Manuel Smith, PhD wrote the best selling book on assertiveness that teaches how build confidence and to communicate with other people. He is a behavioral psychologist who has since described assertiveness as being “psychological penicillin” for coping with life’s problems and the manipulative (including aggressive and extroverted) people we encounter.

    The title is “When I Say No I Feel Guilty”, published in 1975. For introverts, the title could alternately be ‘When I say no I feel drained or depressed’ as the end experience is the same. Yes, you will always be an introvert, but you CAN become an assertive introvert who is immune from feeling drained after engaging in social interactions.

    Find a copy, read it and use it. It works. It’s highly effective and will give you the needed skills to cope with situations that are leaving you feeling mentally exhausted.

  9. Susanne on 08.07.2013 at 10:45 (Reply)

    By the way, normally I don’t speak English but German ;-)

    1. Red Dog on 08.07.2013 at 21:36 (Reply)

      Susanne mentioned: “By the way, normally I don’t speak English but German.”

      I don’t understand how that is relevant. Tell us what difference that might make.

      (In English, please…) :-)

      1. Susanne on 09.07.2013 at 03:49 (Reply)

        Red Dog wrote: “I don’t understand how that is relevant…”

        I just wrote it with a wink ;-) … because you wrote “What do you mean by that? We are all speaking English. :-)” referring to the Billi’s post “Like Susanne answered, it is best to speak their language.”

  10. peggy on 12.07.2013 at 00:10 (Reply)

    Two things I don’t agree with, evolution and Al Gore’s phony rants. He is a bully making piles of money while frightening children and uninformed people.

  11. kiwimusume on 28.07.2013 at 17:39 (Reply)

    Am I the only one who sees those sentences with a period where the question mark should be and just thinks “Somebody’s forgotten their early elementary school grammar”?

  12. Carl on 01.01.2014 at 15:09 (Reply)

    Hi i love this because it gets people that are introverts and even extroverts talking and thinking about these things. Being an introvert,i find that is it important to listen more and speak less, not only externally but internally as This gives you an advantage over arrogant people who can’t be quiet for a minute.
    When an extrovert that is arrogant gets it wrong, it is more harmful to them than if an introvert makes the same error based on the expectation of the audience.
    I have heard so many people talk themselves up and deliver nothing.

    It is important in my mind to know and practice how to talk, when to talk and to be clear and confident about what you are saying. I believe the best thing to do is to gauge the importance of the topic at hand and your audience, if it is something critical then being too quiet and not speaking can impact you greatly. On the other hand when something is trivial, i find it best not to say anything unless necessary. Lastly, being humble is important because it speaks to a great character but humility does not mean that we have to be walking mats.

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