”Speak softly but carry a big stick.”—Theodore Roosevelt
Being a great communicator can change the trajectory of your success. Whether you’re launching a new business and seeking investors, selling a product or service, negotiating for a raise or promotion, you could improve your chances for achieving your goal if you tap into an effective communication style.
One of the secrets to being a great communicator is developing an attunement to your audience. If you examine the world’s great communicators, you’ll find they have keen situational and contextual awareness, speak in a concise style and display authenticity and transparency; influential communicators speak to your emotions and aspirations. 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 others admire and respect us.
Build trust and connection
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the youngest tenured professor at Wharton and author of The New York Times bestseller “Give and Take”, has been researching communication styles for years. Grant has a groundbreaking new description for how to relate: the power of powerless communication. He says that powerless communication can often be quite powerful. Individuals who use the powerless communication style speak in ways that reveal vulnerability, but build connection. They tend to ask more questions rather than continually provide solutions, speak tentatively instead of boldly, and admit their weaknesses rather than boast about themselves. His advice doesn’t apply to everyone. Studies show that “powerless communication” works best for experts not novices and is most effective when speaking to people with average self-esteem.
Why is Powerless Communication effective?
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: doormats and superstars. His research shows that when people think you’re trying to influence them, they put their guard up. But when they feel you’re trying to help them, show interest in them and you’re honest about your own imperfections, they open up to you. Others are more inclined to hear what you have to say when you minimize the focus on yourself and place your attention on them.
In small group decision-making, suggestions prefaced with qualifiers such as “this might be a good way to go” have been found to be accepted more often than demonstrative statements such as “let’s do it this way.”
7 Ways to Use the Power of Powerless Communication
- Be humble and 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?”
- Ask for help or advice. “We value your feedback!” “Would you help us make our website better?”
- Combine your openness with competence
- When you communicate with someone, ask yourself three questions: What could you learn from them? How can you help them or somehow express warmth? And what ways could you allow your true personality show?
- Frame your opinions as suggestions. “I wonder if it would work to do it this way?” Give people the space to disagree with you.
- Be authentic. Be genuinely interested in your audience and show it by asking insightful questions and by seeking feedback. People sense sincerity and will find you more likable.
Expressing some vulnerability, asking questions, talking tentatively, and seeking advice could open doors to gaining influence. It could help you in building networks and in collaborating with colleagues. As Adam Grant cleverly suggests, “Using powerless communication can be far more effective than meets the ear”. When you focus intensely on what your audience wants, needs and desires, and transfer ideas that align with their expectations, you’ll be amazed how much more effective you’ll become in inspiring action and spreading your vision.
Beth Kuhel, M.B.A., C.E.I.P., is a career coach specializing in millennials and career changers. Her weekly “Career Path” column is sponsored by Executive education at Weatherhead School of Management. Beth writes about career strategies and improving the workplace for The Huffington Post, The Personal Branding blog, TinyPulse.com and Sharkpreneur magazine, and has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, U.S. News & World Report and BusinessInsider.com. Connect with Beth on Twitter @BethKuhel.