The research is in. Powerless communication prevails.
Yes. 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?