The Journey of Everyday Leadership


November 2017

Powerless Communication

The research is in. Powerless communication prevails.

Give and TakeYes. You read that correctly. Adam Grant (Give and Take, 2014: 126-154) makes the compelling case that powerful communication (especially in day-to-day interactions) turns out to be far less effective than powerless communication. We imagine that strong, confident, and assertive language wins the day. But not so. It’s a twist that many of us would not expect.

Here’s how it works.

Research suggests that we have two basic pathways to influence: dominance and prestige. On the one hand, we establish dominance (and gain a level of influence) by projecting power. We speak forcefully, raise our voices with conviction, and use dominating body language. It’s powerful communication. A great many leadership programs concern themselves with such power-talk, power-language, and image-building.

On the other hand, prestige functions differently. Unlike dominance which can only be experienced by one person or very few people in a given setting, prestige can be poured out equally and endlessly to everyone. It does not rely on forceful language but on vulnerability and approachability; what some might consider powerless communication.

Furthermore, since 1966 psychologists have studied “the pratfall effect” which concludes that when an average person is self-deprecating or clumsy, it hurts them; but when an expert does the same, it makes them more human and more believable. We can be too polished and too exact!

Finally, powerful communicators may fall victim to another trap identified by James Pennebaker in 1997: “The more you talk, the more you think you have learned about the group.” Ever met someone who does all the talking and then declares it was a great meeting? The irony, of course, is that nobody learns about others by doing all the talking. To the contrary, powerless communicators hand the floor to others and learn about them and from them. And in this act of generous listening, they offer prestige and gain prestige. Speaking over others may dominate the conversation, but it hardly breaks the surface.

All of this seems a little counter-intuitive. We expect the strongest leaders to exude polish, appear flawless, and carry the conversation. But most people, most of the time, respond far more warmly and with far greater commitment to powerless communication; not sloppy, incoherent, ill-prepared, apologetic presentations, but leaders who project vulnerability, approachability, sensitivity, authenticity, and a good listening ear.

The humility to which Christ called His followers (and those who would lead under His Lordship) merely underscores His eternal wisdom.

What kind of communicator will you be today, with your spouse, your kids, or your colleagues?

Friday Quote

On this Veterans Day, let us remember the service of our veterans, and let us renew our national promise to fulfill our sacred obligations to our veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much so that we can live free.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Dan Lipinski

Thank you, Veterans for your sacrificial service.

Grief, Loss, and Leadership

Good leaders communicate in season and out. The right word can inspire and motivate. More importantly, the right word can connect people in times of grief and loss, though many leaders find words of comfort the most difficult to express.

Wilfred Bockelman offers help for us all in his short book entitled “Finding the Right Words: Offering Care and Comfort When You Don’t Know What to Say.

He presents four principles to guide us through meaningful leadership care-giving.

First, even when you don’t know what to say, go to the person who has had the tragedy. In other words, presence matters. Of course, some people may want to be left alone. Bockelman says it’s better to go and say, “I don’t know what to say,” than not to go because you fear saying the wrong thing. Not knowing what to say actually means you are feeling the pain of the persons loss at a deep level. Even if a person wants to be left alone, letting them know you are feeling their pain helps to bridge a connection.

Second, make it as easy as possible for the person(s) suffering the loss to say whatever they want to say. In other words, don’t over talk to fill in the silent spaces. Listen with your head and with your heart for things said and unsaid. We call this making space for another’s grief. This skill requires a leader to be fully present.

Third, don’t promise anything you can’t deliver or fulfill. This may sound self-explanatory. Bockelman says be specific when offering help. Such as, “I know you have a lot on your mind. Would you like me to take the laundry home and do it for you?” Another phrase might be: “Are there any errands I can run for you, like getting groceries or taking the kids to soccer practice?”

Last, be prepared to follow through after the shock of the tragedy fades. Immediate support is usually a first thought for most care-givers. However, making a commitment for six months or a year out to provide help shows the leader’s extra care for a person in pain.

Bockelman provides a useful guide for communication during painful losses. A leader does not need to be a “natural” during times of crisis. They only need to communicate clearly that one person’s loss is worth the leader’s best effort in communicating care.

Take a focused moment to prepare yourself to engage the losses your followers are facing. The Apostle Paul admonished leaders to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. How are you doing with this leadership principle?


Dennis Nichols is Lead Faculty for the Master of Arts in Leadership at William Jessup University

Blog at

Up ↑