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The Power of Powerless Communication

The Power of Powerless Communication

BY Michelle McQuaid

When you’re trying to win others over do you try and come across as a strong and powerful communicator – speaking with certainty, authority, and conviction? After all most of us have been taught that the best way to influence others is by confidently promoting our credentials, and being sure of our answers. But can this communication style sometimes backfire on us?

Professor Adam Grant, best-selling author and researcher from The Wharton Business School suggests that a confident powerful communication style may not always be the best approach. He suggests you can often build more trust, respect and genuine connections with others through powerless communication – where you talk tentatively, share your uncertainties, reveal your vulnerabilities, ask more questions and give fewer answers.

So how do you balance having just the right amount of expertise and confidence, whilst expressing your uncertainties and hesitations to really influence people? Listen to Adam’s TedTalk to find out why powerless communication can be so effective, and how you can use it to forge strong connections with others.

What Will You Learn?

  • [6:00] Research indicates that when experts make a small mistake, that is unrelated to their area of competence, they are better liked by people. It humanizes them, and makes it easier for people to relate to them. So by acknowledging and being open about your shortcomings builds trust and connections with others.
  • [7:30] Research has found when you’re collaborating in a team or interacting with others people care more about whether you’re a warm person than they will about your competence.  If you come across as too assertive, too dominant, too confident, you can be perceived as not a good team player. But you can earn more trust, respect and status, by saying things with a little uncertainty and hesitancy.
  • [9:11] Tentative speech includes using: hesitations such as, “well”, “um”; hedges such as “maybe”, “probably”, “I think”; adding intensifiers like “really”, “quite”, “very”; and using tag questions such as “Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?”
  • [10:05] Asking questions also engages people, and lets them experience the ‘joy of talking’.
  • [12:59] There’s one kind of question that turns out to work better than any other if you wanted to influence someone – ask them for advice.
  • [14:28] Research indicates three things then to happen when you ask advice of others: it flatters them; builds empathy; and creates a willingness to assist. It can turn adversaries into advocates.
  • [16:04] By revealing our shortcomings as well as our strengths people can relate to us. By talking tentatively and not so confidently we can create genuine connections with others, and show an openness to what they have to say and to work with them as equals.
  • [17:42] There’s one caveat though – powerless communication seems to work better when you are trying to communicate with, and influence an audience with average self-esteem and self-confidence.

What Can You Try?

  • Presenting – Once you’ve established your credibility, instead of maintaining a veneer of perfection and high achievements, be open about your vulnerabilities and imperfections. Try to frame your opinions as suggestions– “I wonder if it would be better if we did it this way?’. Be authentic and use self-deprecating humor at times to help people feel safe with you and relate to you as being human.
  • Asking questions – Getting to know people build trusts and gain knowledge about their needs and interests. It shows an openness and willingness to work with them as equals. Consider these points in your interactions with others: What do you have to learn from them? How can you assist them? How can you show warmth and concern for their concerns? How can you let your authentic self shine through?
  • Seek other’s advice –  This is one of the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors and subordinates. When you ask others for advice, you’re posing a question that conveys uncertainty and makes you vulnerable. It helps you to discover things you don’t know, gives others the chance to take your perspective, intensifies people’s commitment to support you and makes others feels respected.

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