Powerless communication

From “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success” by Adam Grant

Research suggests that there are two fundamental paths to influence dominance and prestige. When we establish dominance, we gain influence because others see us as strong, powerful, and authoritative. When we earn prestige, we become influential because other respect and admire us.

These two paths to influence are closely tied to our reciprocity styles. Takers are attracted to, and excel in, gaining dominance. In an effort to claim as much value as possible, they strive to be superior to others. To establish dominance, takers specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices to assert their authority, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments, and seel with conviction and pride. They display strength by spreading their arms in dominant poses, raising their eyebrows in challenge, commanding as much physical space as possible, and conveying anger and issuing threats when necessary. In the quest for influence, takers set the tone and control the conversation by sending powerful verbal and nonverbal signals. As a result, takers tend to be much more effective than givers in gaining dominance. But is that the most sustainable path to influence?

When our audiences are skeptical, the more we try to dominate them, the more they resist. Even with a receptive audience, dominance is a zero-sum game: the more power and authority I have, the less you have. When takers come across someone more dominant, they’re at risk of losing their influence. Conversely, prestige isn’t zero-sum; there’s no limit to the amount of respect and admiration that we can dole out. This means that prestige usually has more lasting value, and it’s worth examining how people earn it.

The opposite of a taker’s powerful communication style is called powerless communication. Powerless communicators tend to speak less assertively expressing plenty of doubt and relying heavily on advice from others. They talk in ways that signal vulnerability, revealing their weaknesses and making use of disclaimers, hedges, and hesitations. In Western societies, Susan Cain writes in Quiet, people expect us to communicate powerfully. We’re told that great leaders use “power talk” and “power words” to forcefully convey their messages. By using powerless communication, surely people wind up at a disadvantage when it comes to influence.

Um, well, not quite.

I think.