Life is an endless series of negotiations and opportunities to influence those around us. We communicate all the time and often with the intention of getting something done, get some gain, or help others. In the book Give and Take, Adam Grant talks about three types of people givers, matchers, and takers.
Takers are those who’s ultimate question always is, “what is in it for me?” Givers are those who always ask, “how can I help you?” Matchers are those who shoot for a parity, “I will help you if you help me.”
When it comes to leadership givers, have an additional advantage over takers. Because their ultimate goal is to help others, they attract the most talented people. They will always do what is best for the people they manage, even if it means short-term pain for themselves or the company. Of course, if the word gets around that this is the philosophy you have, people will be more likely to want to work for you.
Takers often use dominance as a way to gain influence. They show how powerful they are. They use the official authority to get things done. Givers use prestige as their primary tool of influence. People will follow givers because they respect them.
And the same goes for communication. You can use the power talk to push your ideas and agenda. You can use the power of your official authority, even intimidate a bit. Or you can start by influencing others using a very different kind of language and approach.
What is powerless communication
Grant suggests that givers often use a concept called powerless communication when influencing others. It uses a less aggressive style with a frequent expression of doubt and using suggestions and questions rather than orders.
Using this style, you show vulnerability. It may not be the most apparent communication style for leaders, especially in western countries, as it feels like being at a disadvantage against someone who uses a power talk. And if you want to dominate others, it indeed isn’t.
But if your goal is to influence and help others find out their own potential, it is pretty powerful. It is particularly handy when talking with people who have bigger knowledge of the area, and they know it, or when speaking with those with ever-present ego.
The only caveat is that you need to show to the person in some other way that you should be taken seriously. If all you do is to provide hesitant answers, you won’t be listened to. If the other person already knows that you are competent, if your credibility is not in question, then powerless communication works miracles.
Why does it work? Most of us hate being told what to do. We go through our lives thinking that we know better. We want to make our own choices. We want to feel like we are those who came up with the idea. We want to feel respected.
As Adam Grant writes, givers use powerless communication more often than takers. They would use words like “maybe,” “probably,” “I think,” “this may work,” “shouldn’t we try,” “what about,” and various other disclaimers, tag questions, and tentative talk.
Influencing by asking questions is the most indirect approach you can take. You may have some idea how to get things done, but you want the other person or the team to figure out their own way. Why? Because if someone chooses their approach, they are more likely to be committed. It was they who decided to do things in a certain way, so they feel accountable for the results.
If it were you who dictated how things should be done, then you are the one who is accountable. The team may do it your way, but no heart will be in it, and if things fail, they will point at you as the problem. They did what you told them to do.
Asking questions to stimulate conversation and a thinking process is a powerful way to guide your team. Just refrain from the need to push things done your way. The worst thing to do is to ask the team to come up with a plan and then change it completely from your position of power.
Influencing by making suggestions gives you more opportunities to provide input without making orders. It is you who has the idea you want to get implemented, but rather than trying to order others, you want to influence them. Making suggestions in the form of, “what about doing this?” is for many people more acceptable than just saying, “do this!”.
Using language based on suggestion puts you on equal ground, sort of, with the rest of the team. You are one of the people who is brainstorming the best way forward. Of course, it is not entirely true. If you have positional power, the underlying dynamic is still deformed by you being the boss. There is always a danger that your suggestions will be considered orders the higher in the hierarchy you are. But perceptions matter when influencing others, and by making suggestions, you do get more buy-in.
The same also goes the other way around. If you need to influence those who are above you in the hierarchy, suggestion language works great. It allows your superiors to maintain face, to guard their ego, while you can still push your agenda. “I gave it some thought and what about doing this?”
And this leads us to the final approach that often works with those who need their ego protected.
Asking for advice is a great way to influence more senior or knowledgeable people. By asking a question you are showing vulnerability, there is something you don’t know. You are also showing respect and acknowledgment of the knowledge of the individual you are asking. That makes them feel needed. And being needed feels good.
You indicate you want to learn, and you show respect. You immediately appear non-threatening and trustworthy. You have the power to influence even though you may not have the actual authority. “What do you think about this idea? I feel it could work but wanted to run it by you since you have more experience with the topic.”
And then there is the benefit of commitment. When people do us a favor or give us advice, they are more likely to keep giving. They’ve already committed a bit, so why not do more. What is even more important, chances are they will like us more. Since they already gave us their attention, energy, and trust, their subconscious mind must justify that. The easiest way to make that justification is for them to convince themselves that we are worthy. And they keep giving.
Putting it all together
Both power talk and powerless communication have their place. When to use which depends on the target audience and situation. If you have a team of dutiful followers who don’t show much initiative or where initiative is not even desirable, then powerful communication will serve you better.
However, if you have proactive employees and you desire creativity and enthusiasm, power talk discourages participation. Go for powerless communication instead. This phenomenon also explains to some extent why introverts are great leaders of proactive employees. The communication style matches the need.
What are your thoughts on powerless communication? Do you believe you can have a bigger impact by using more direct power talk or a bit indirect tentative communication with lots of questions? What is your experience with each of these?
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