The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant

Shake-the-world-gandhi-quoteAs I was reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, I was struck by the passage below where he talks about the art of persuading people. For context, Franklin is talking about how he came to adopt the Socratic method of debate, which he took to great lengths, often entangling people with his questions in a web of their own making. He gradually let go of this practice, but retained the habit of speaking with doubt and inquiry, instead of certainty, and found this manner of speech helpful in persuading people. He writes:

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may be possibly disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please, or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.”

Wait a second. Is Franklin really recommending talking with “modest diffidence” and avoiding “giving the air of positiveness to an opinion?” This seems opposite to the rules for success in today’s world where a forceful, emphatic communication style is valued, and “modest diffidence” is seen as a sign of under-confidence. Would Franklin have succeeded in today’s world? Or would he have been told that he didn’t inspire confidence and needed to work on developing a more forceful communication style?

Adam Grant provides some answers in Give and Take, the book that influenced me the most this year. Adam’s research indicates that there are three common reciprocity styles: “givers” give generously without doing the math on what they’re getting in return, “takers” take as much as they can, and “matchers” are as generous as the person they’re dealing with. These reciprocity styles are in turn closely related to how each of these categories of people try to achieve influence and how they communicate with others. Adam says:

Takers are attracted to, and excel in gaining dominance. In an effort to claim as much value as possible, they strive to be superior to others. To establish dominance, takers specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices to assert their authority, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments and sell with conviction and pride. They display strength by spreading their arms in dominant poses, raising their eyebrows in challenge, commanding as much physical space as possible, and conveying anger and issuing threats when necessary.”

Well, if career self-help is anything to go by, it looks like takers are adopting the all the right tactics to get ahead.

Except, they won’t.

It turns out that dominance is not really a sustainable path to influence. A forceful communication style can backfire, especially when communicating with a skeptical audience, and the more takers try to dominate, the more the audience resists. As Franklin onserved, “…I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us…” In fact, even when the audience is receptive, dominance is not a sustainable strategy, advises Adam. Dominance is a zero sum game, and the more one person has dominance, the less  others do. And so when a more dominant person comes into the picture, the taker is likely to lose his or her dominance.

So, what is the sustainable path to influence? Building prestige, a path that givers naturally gravitate towards. Unlike dominance, prestige is not a zero sum game. We can all enjoy prestige by virtue of our thoughts and action. Prestige is not a limited commodity like dominance, and this makes it more sustainable. Adam found that givers influence those around them by virtue of the prestige they have gained,  but the manner in which they do so looks very different from the way takers try to influence.

The way givers influence and persuade remind me of Gandhi. In a gentle way, they believe they can shake the world. As Adam puts it, givers adopt a “power-less” communication style, instead of adopting a powerful communication style:

Because they value the perspectives and interests of others, givers are more inclined toward asking questions than offering answers, talking tentatively than talking boldly, admitting their weaknesses than displaying their strengths, and seeking advice than imposing their views on others.”

While a powerful communication style is considered the de facto style for success, Adam found that the powerless communication style has many benefits when presenting, selling, persuading, or negotiating. While a powerful communication style may be great for some purposes (e.g., getting a foot in the door in a job interview), a powerless communication style is actually more effective when collaborating with others and persuading them. This is something the wise Franklin knew when he said: “…never using, when I advanced any thing that may be possibly disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; bur rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.”

As I see it, underneath the power-less communication style lies the intent to listen, to learn, and do what is best for the greater good, and people respond to this energy. While a powerful communication style certainly has its merits, at its worst, it steamrolls people into consent, and we all know the result of that is never pretty. The person who confidently, certainly, loudly asserts there are no holes in their thinking and steamrolls ahead crushes the knowledge that lies with others. As Franklin warned: “If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.”

So, if you really want to be a powerful communicator, leave space in the room for people to assimilate your opinion, instead of forcing it on them. Listen more, talk less. Don’t hesitate to say you don’t know, and then go find out. See the value that others bring. Win with prestige, not dominance.

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8 thoughts on “The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant

  1. Very well-written, Priyanka. And what a valuable lesson in power-less communication that the world truly needs to learn and appreciate.

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    1. Thanks Neha! I’m glad the message resonated with you! I was struck by it when I read Adam’s research. Seems like “power-less” communication actually gets a whole lot more done than powerful communications.

      Like

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