Are You Listening Too Much of the Time?

communicationAs I wrote a while back, I’ve been working on my communication skills through Ramit Sethi’s “How to Talk to Anybody,” video training course. Although communication skills are so vital, it’s amazing that they’re never really “taught” at school.

With writers, a common problem is that we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves through the written word, with its backspace button that gives us comfort that we’re expressing exactly what we want to, as well as distance which helps us say what we want, without fear of how people may react. But we’re less comfortable expressing ourselves verbally. So, more often than not, we may spend more time observing and absorbing and assimilating – i.e., listening – than we do talking. The upside is that people often choose to talk to us, confide in us, and ask us for input. The downside is that we may not be heard because we’ve spent so much time listening.

As a natural listener, and (hopefully) an empathetic one, I’ve never had trouble listening to people. But Ramit Sethi’s course opened my eyes to a big issue in my communication: the fact that I was spending much more time listening that I was talking.

What happens in such a dynamic? Well, people end up leaving the conversation understanding very little about you! As I look back at years and years of conversations, I’m amazed at how I did not see the impact of this dynamic. I often asked lots of questions and listened carefully to what people had to say, so I knew a lot about them, and hence felt closer to them, than they knew about me or felt about me.

And yet, being known and being valued for our unique strengths, stories, and talents – apart from the fact that we’re good listeners! – is something that we all want.

Ramit’s solution? For every two questions you ask, make a statement.

And so I’ve started consciously to focus more on self-disclosure; to listen, but also to talk. And slowly but surely I can see the difference its making. Not only do I understand people around me, they’re beginning to understand me.

You May Also Like

The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant
Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

Growing Up, Broken: Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life”

This essay contains spoilers. I heard Akhil speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, the source of all quotes attributed to him.

What does it family lifemean to grow up in a home struck by tragedy, the effects of which linger long after the tragedy itself? This is the theme of Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life,” a bleak and poignant fictionalized memoir.

Soon after Ajay’s family (Akhil is fictionalized as Ajay), moves from India to the United States in the 1970s, tragedy strikes when Birju, Ajay’s elder brother, is brain-damaged in a swimming accident. How does the family cope, and not cope, is what this book is about. While his father starts drinking to drown his sorrow, his mother continues to keep the faith that Birju would get better, and looks for God-men and miracle workers to cure her son. In the middle is Ajay, a little boy who’s world is broken, and who’s parents don’t have the emotional wherewithal to parent him.

Akhil spoke about what it was like to write this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year. “I shattered my youth against this book,” he said, “I was 30 when I started writing and 42 when I finished. I may not have written it if I knew it would take so long.”

In this decade that Akhil took to write this book, he showed up to write for five hours every day. Whether or not he wrote, he sat at his desk in a little cubby with a computer, a stopwatch, and his thoughts.

In a remarkable feat of empathy, he wrote the book from the perspective of his father, his mother, his elder brother Birju, and himself, as he sought to piece together his shattered childhood. Ultimately, he wrote “Family Life” in his own voice as a young boy growing up.

Some of the most touching parts of the book deal with Ajay’s attempts as a child to make sense of the tragedy, his sense of survivor’s guilt, and his reality of taking up adult responsibilities much before his time.

In a moving passage, Ajay describes how he felt crossing the swimming pool where Birju had hurt himself irreparably:

I wondered what had happened to the pool’s unlucky water after the accident. Had it been drained? Probably it had not. All summer long, people must have swum in the pool and sat on its sides, splashing their feet in the water, and not known that my brother had lain for three minutes on its concrete bottom one August afternoon.

Just a nine or ten-year old, Ajay does not know that this tragedy will influence his life for decades to come. When his parents move Birju back home from the nursing home, Ajay is crushed under the weight of helping his parents take care of Birju, who needs to be bathed, clothed, and fed.

How much of the physical horrors resulting from the accident and its aftermath should he share with the readers was a question Akhil grappled with. He chose to narrate only some of the horrors: readers would not be able to bear the full extent of the blows. He narrates the horrors in such a matter-of-fact way, the reader can choose to speed through; stopping will mean feeling and those feelings are devastating.

In addition to the physical horrors, Ajay and his family also suffer deep emotional wounds. Ajay’s survivor’s guilt is poignantly captured in this passage:

Brother-life,” I said, using a phrase because it was melodramatic and because by saying something melodramatic, I could make myself sound ridiculous, like a child, and so not to be blamed for my good luck of being OK, “my English teacher wanted us to write a paragraph on what we did during the summer. I didn’t have a pencil. What kind of a fool am I?”

As I spoke I had the feeling that I was being watched. I had the sense that some man was looking at me and this man knew I was not very good and yet I had received so much of the family’s luck.

In their codependent household, happiness remains out of reach, and for Ajay, separating from his family, especially from his mother, to find happiness seems like a betrayal.

Not only was I luckier than my brother, but I was also more fortunate than my mother. I wanted to shriek. While a part of me was glad I wasn’t like my brother, no part of me wished to be more fortunate than my mother. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to be apart from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her.

When he got into Princeton and thought about starting “his own” life, Akhil did not want to be ok, because he knew his parents wouldn’t be ok. His happiness was inter-twined with his family’s happiness and being happy was always tinged with guilt.

In a poignant scene, Ajay talks about his first girlfriend, and how he just wants to keep talking with her, confiding in her, and unburdening to her. It is painfully clear then that Ajay has not spoken since the accident.

Does this pain, an amalgam of the tragedy, the neglect, the parentification, ever go away? “(If you’ve had) difficulties with family, it doesn’t get over. It goes on and on and on,” says Akhil.

As painful as it was for Akhil to process and write, this book, he says, is a love letter to his family.  It is about piecing together his broken heart, and being able to see the broken hearts of his family. It is about expanding the two-dimensional view of his experience as a child, and seeing it in three dimensions.

As a teenager, Akhil had wondered, how he could write “to earn a good lifestyle” as he pored over the biographies and the works of Hemingway. The interviewer asked him if he had made the money that you wanted, found the happiness he desired. “Money, yes,” Akhil answered ” (Am I) happy, I don’t know. I have a satisfying life, I’m not sure a happy life.”

Having examined the pieces of his shattered childhood, Akhil says “Whatever happened, happened. What do you do today to be happy? How can I be of service to others?”

Writing this book has been his act of service. Akhil helps his readers to embrace their own pain and find comfort in the book. As little Ajay describes his experience reading:

Vanishing into a book, I felt held.

You May Also Like

About to Criticize? Praise Instead…

The Many Layers of “The Giving Tree”

Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

About to Criticize? Praise Instead…

I just finished reading Maria Chaudhuri’s memoir “Beloved Strangers,” an accountcriticism of her growing up as a child in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and then as a woman in New York, in the United States. I picked up this book after hearing Maria speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year and sensing a sensitive soul in her.

In the passage below, Maria describes how she was humiliated by her Math teacher as a six-year old for failing to “get” numbers, their addition and subtraction, their multiplication and division.

Invariably, Mrs. Bashir would fling my lesson book across the classroom, grab me by both ears to pick me up and place me, red-faced and burning on the “shame bench” outside the classroom. There I remained until the noonday sun baked my skin dry. As the energy seeped out of me in streams of sweat, it took me all my strength not to faint.

The shaming continued until it became clear that I would not make the same mistakes again. I stopped making mistakes because I stopped being able to add or subtract at all. On one occasion, Mrs. Bashir was perplexed when she opened my lesson book to see that I’d neatly copied the assignment but left it entirely undone. Concluding that the shaming had been inadequate, she dragged the red bench, which had stood just outside the classroom window, inside, and placed it next to the teacher’s desk so the victim could squarely face the gleeful spectators of her torture. Saved from the tropical sun, my skin began to recover its natural tone again but my six-year-old heart was broken. As my classmates looked on mockingly, I hung my head and wished I would faint after all.

How did this criticism affect Maria? Did she start to “get” Math?

Unsurprisingly, all that Maria was able to take away from this experience was a fear of Math, and worse, a sense of shame. Whenever punished, Maria escaped the classroom by running away in her mind.

This was when I invented the odd game with numbers. I ran up and down the shapes of their horrid bodies, hid in their nooks and crannies and refused to hear anything they might have to say to me. I fantasized chopping them into edible bits and gobbling them up, once and for all, so they’d leave me alone. No matter what I tried though, they stayed with me. They greeted me every morning from the pages of my books, cooing incessantly in my hand, “Shame-shame, shame-shame, shame-shame…”

Has harsh criticism ever helped you do better at anything in your life?  Either as a child or an adult? Personally, I cannot think of a single time when such destructive criticism has helped me “improve” my performance. Like Maria, I have wanted to escape and run away to somewhere safe when faced with harsh criticism. Such criticism has made it harder for me to do something that I’m finding difficult to do in the first place.

Destructive criticism breaks our spirit, makes us fearful, makes us freeze. It clips our wings, making us do worse, instead of  better. Praise, on the other hand, gives us wings and helps us fly.

This was true for Maria at school, this is true at work.

In a recent study, researchers found that some managers consistently rated all their employees higher, and others consistently lower, than the average. They wondered if this was a result of bias and wanted to understand the effect the ratings had on people who worked with these managers. The authors say:

Are the positive-rating managers indulging in grade inflation? Do the lower ratings actually represent a more objective and deserved analysis of a subordinate’s performance?…Or perhaps the ratings are in some way self-fulfilling, and the leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse.

We favor that second interpretation, since whether deserved or not, the psychological effect of these ratings was dramatic. Anyone who joined us in the discussions with the subordinates of these two sets of managers would have instantly seen the impact. The people who’d received more positive ratings felt lifted up and supported. And that vote of confidence made them more optimistic about future improvement.  Conversely, subordinates rated by the consistently tougher managers were confused or discouraged—often both. They felt they were not valued or trusted, and that it was impossible to succeed.

Praise and confidence in employees sets them up for success. Holding them to meet impossible standards brings them down.

So, the message is clear. If you’re faced with a choice between praising and criticizing, choose praise. If you’re struggling through harsh criticism you’ve received, praise yourself for your efforts instead of beating yourself up.  From the wise and wonderful Louise L Hay comes this wonderful affirmation:

I praise myself for big and little things.

I am a wonderful being. I used to scold and criticize myself because I believed it would help me improve my life, and yet, criticism has not improved me over the years. In fact, criticism seems to make it much harder to change and progress. So, as I listen to my inner dialogue and find that I am being critical, telling myself that I’m not good enough or that I’m doing something wrong, I recognize the old patterns of childhood, and I immediately begin to speak lovingly to my inner child. Instead of tearing myself apart, I choose to nourish myself with praise and approval. I know I am on the way to becoming consistently loving.

What are some strategies YOU use to deal with harsh criticism? How do you take the learning from the criticism without letting it get you down? Do share your experience in the comments.

You May Also Like

The Right Way to Give—A lesson by Adam Grant and Dr. Seuss
The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant

“I Don’t Know” Are Wise and Wonderful Words

One of my heroes, Susan Cain, the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” and the co-founder of the Quiet Revolution recently shared this piece of wisdom from Cass Sunstein’s new book on overcoming groupthink, “Wiser”:

When people lack confidence, they tend to be tentative and, therefore, moderate, knowing that their own views may be wrong. The great American judge Learned Hand once said that ‘the spirit of liberty is that spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’ Tentative people respect the spirit of liberty. But as people gain confidence, they usually become more extreme in their beliefs. The reason is that a significant moderating factor — their own uncertainty about whether they are right — has been eliminated.

Yet, expressing this spirit which “is not too sure that is is right,” which acknowledges that problems are complex and things are connected and messy in ways that take time and depth to unravel is often looked down upon, especially in domains such as business or politics.

Though questions and doubts are the raw ingredients from which insights, solutions, and ultimately, value emerges, “I don’t know” are still difficult words for people to speak in business.

As Stephen Levitt, coauthor of “Think Like a Freak,” a manual which teaches the  approach Levitt and Stephen Dubner used to write the bestselling Freaknomics says:

It’s absolutely been my experience in business that nobody ever wants to admit that they don’t know the answer to questions, even when it’s patently obvious that they can’t know the answers because of the (limited) information they have. Businesspeople, especially in front of their bosses, have an almost unlimited ability to sit back and mint answers they don’t know. To me, that’s exactly the opposite of the “Freakonomics” approach.

Although projecting certainty can provide the air of knowing the answers, it does not ensure that that those answers are correct. But the incentives of the business world, and other domains such as politics, seem to call for this all-knowing stance, instead of one of curiosity, of uncertainty, of a desire for true knowledge. Here’s how Dubner explains it:

I understand the way the incentives work. I understand that reputation works. Nobody wants to be the ignoramus or the dummy. If I’m a politician and someone says, “Governor Blah Blah, Senator Blah Blah, we just had this terrible mass shooting at a school. If you could do anything — if all options were available to you — what would you do to prevent that in the future?”

The way the world works is, [the politician will respond], “I’m gonna tell you. I’m gonna do these three things, and that’s what will do it.” [But if you follow up with the question:] “Do you have any evidence? Is there any empirical reason to think that that actually would work?” Often, I hate to say it, [the answer is] no. You see that in certain realms — politics and in business where the incentives are different. There’s a big incentive to get it right in business, but there’s also a lot of, for lack of a more sophisticated term, peer pressure to be the gal or guy who knows, who has the plan.

And while the peer pressure and personal value is a force in the present, the outcome of the solution proposed so emphatically can only be seen in the distant future, by when the decision makers have likely moved on to different things, unlikely to be judged on their “plan.”

Faced with this reality, only the few who genuinely care about finding the right answer, about helping the cause, not just helping their own careers, risk saying “I don’t know.”

Yet, over the long-term, businesses do want decision makers to take decisions that are in the long-term interest of the business, not just themselves. So, it might make sense for companies to build an atmosphere which values thoughtful enquiry, not bravado, which respects healthy confidence and judgment, but questions a surety which comes too easy and slick.

Of course, most routine questions don’t require a deep investigation. But every once in a while questions and puzzles come up which are better answered by saying “I don’t know,” and then trying to find the answers.

How do you feel about saying or hearing “I don’t know?” What strategies can make it easier to say or hear these words?

Magic Words

You May Also Like

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

Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

The Right Way to Give–A lesson by Adam Grant and Dr. Seuss

How Extroverts Could Unknowingly Harm Their Introverted Colleagues

I recently came across the lemonprovocatively titled article, “How Introverts Secretly Hold Back Their Extroverted Colleagues.” My first reaction to the title was skepticism. I should probably clarify here that I am an introvert per MBTI, an ambivert per Daniel Pink’s assessment, and a social introvert per the STAR method. Skeptical, yet curious, I read on:

Introverted employees may have it out for their more outgoing peers, according to researchers at Oregon State University, the University of Florida, and University of Notre Dame. Not only are introverts more likely to rate extroverted colleagues as worse performers at work, they’re less likely to give them credit.

Introverts, especially those living in more extroverted cultures, may find this allegation hard to believe. In her revolutionary book “Quiet“, Susan Cain talks about the challenges introverts face living under the “Extrovert Ideal,” and the biases they face from the extroverts around them. But this article suggests the opposite.

Here’s one of the studies the article quotes:

…178 students were each assigned to a four- or five-person project team for the semester, then asked to complete questionnaires about their team members midway through the term. Additionally, they were asked to share thoughts on how they got along as a team, as well as their own personalities.

To the researchers’ surprise, introverted team members rated other introverts higher than extroverts, while the extroverts didn’t seem to be influenced by the personalities of their teammates at all.

What might be the reason behind this apparent bias? Do introverts really “have it out for their more outgoing peers?”

Well, this could be one of the contributing factors. For introverts who’re quiet-shamed under the Extrovert Ideal, some might indeed feel resentful enough to lose their sense of fairness and rate extroverts poorly. But is this really true for most of the people, most of the time? I don’t think so.

I don’t have access to this particular study, but I do have a hunch about why this might have happened. The answer lies in the lemon experiment.

The lemon experiment shows that introverts salivate more than extroverts when tasting lemon juice. This sensitivity to stimuli occurs not just when tasting lemon juice, but also in every other sphere of life, including social interactions. Since introverts are more easily stimulated, they prefer working in a calm and peaceful environment, i.e., they are looking to lower their  level of stimulation. On the other hand, extroverts don’t do as well in the same calm and peaceful environment which they might find dull, i.e., they are looking to increase their level of stimulation.

The acclaimed psychologist and professor, Brian Little demonstrates this concept of optimal stimulation in his charming Ted Talk: Confessions of a Passionate Introvert. (Time: 3:14 – 7:22)

So, in light of this new understanding of extroverts and introverts, let’s re-examine the study we discussed above.

When working on the project together, it’s possible that the working style and work environment preferences for introverts and extroverts differed. And since the work environment is often geared for the Extrovert Ideal (think open plan offices and group brainstorming), it’s likely that introverts in the group find themselves working in a situation that is not conducive for them to do their best (i.e., in which they are over stimulated). Since the work environment and methods work well for extroverts, they may be unaware of how these practices don’t work for introverts. Since they find these interactions energizing and stimulating,  they struggle to understand that the same interactions may be draining for introverts. So, an extrovert may judge introverts “objectively” on their performance, without considering that the introvert is working in a inhospitable environment, if you will. Introverts on the other hand are very conscious of the effect that their extroverted colleagues and extroverted working methods have on them and their introverted peers. So, the lower rating they may give extroverts is likely to be because of the negative externality of highly extroverted behavior on the more introverted folks.

One of the  researchers of the study concludes:

The issue might be that extroverts just need to hit a “dimmer switch” when interacting with their taciturn peers.

While this is no doubt good, sensible advice, what is really important is educating extroverts of the effect they can have on introverts and their need to be more mindful of the needs of people different from them.

It would also be helpful to learn more about the wonderful, rich, and complex tapestry that is the introverted mind, instead of labeling them taciturn or using diminutive terms like “that introvert.” Like the wise Susan Cain says, just like feminism is not anti-men, the power of introverts is not against extroverts. Just like women need their voice heard to overcome oppression, so do introverts need their voice heard and their needs met to blossom and grow.

How can YOU make the world a better place for the introverts in your life? If you’re an introvert, what have you done to share your needs at college, work, or at home? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

If you think this piece could help an introvert or an extrovert you know, don’t hesitate to share this with them.

You May Also Like
Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers
Diligence is Not a Dirty Word I can’t recommend enough Susan Cain’s wonderful, life-changing and world-changing book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts.”
If you would like to grow the power of introverts, join the Quiet Revolution.

Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

churchill-lifegivingIn his wise and wonderful book Give and Take, Adam Grant talks about the upsides and downsides of being a generous person, or in Adam’s words, a giver. Givers naturally enjoy giving their ideas, help, and support freely and this helps them build goodwill which drives their success. But sometimes, givers can care too much for other people’s interests to the extent that they hurt themselves.

Adam recounts the story of Sameer, a new MBA graduate and giver, who found it hard to negotiate the terms of his offer with a prospective employer. Sameer says:

I felt awkward. I like my boss and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.

Sameer had always found negotiations difficult and had the reputation of being a pushover, caring too much about other people’s interests and sacrificing his own. But this time, Sameer negotiated increases in his total compensation to the tune of $70,000. How did he do it?  It turns out that Sameer adopted the role of an advocate for his family when negotiating, instead of negotiating for himself. He says:

As a giver, I feel guilty about pushing too much, but the minute I start thinking ‘I’m hurting my family, who’s depending on me for this,’ I don’t feel guilty about pushing for that side.

Adam says this strategy works because Sameer is doing what givers do naturally: advocating for other people’s interests. Intentionally advocating for his family, whose interests are aligned to his own, helped Sameer be more assertive in the negotiation, while being fair to his boss and company.

Since givers are deeply concerned about the well-being and interests of others, sometimes even more than their own, serving the interests of others is a strong driving force, even more than “what’s in it for me?”

I was blown away by Adam’s insight and struck by the power that thinking about others has for givers. While we saw how thinking about others helps givers protect their own interests in negotiations, I wondered if this strategy could be used in other situations. If so, what might these other situations be?

Here are two situations that I identified where other-interest can help givers: to aid their self-development and to further causes dear to them.

I’ve been working on my communication skills using Ramit Sethi’s How to Talk to Anybody course. Early on in the course, Ramit makes the point that having good communication skills is a service to other people. So, when you go and approach someone at a party or a networking dinner, you’re doing them a favor, because they’re probably as hesitant as you in making the first step. When you smile and make small talk with a barista, you’re brightening their otherwise mundane day. And this thinking about others can be a surprisingly strong motivator. When thinking about improving their communication skills for themselves, givers might be constrained by real factors  (e.g., an introvert may find small talk draining) and mental models (e.g., “I don’t have anything interesting to say.”) But when givers think about how their communication skills serve others, they may find themselves more motivated to develop themselves.

Similarly, an introvert may need to act in a more extroverted manner sometimes, says Susan Cain. But pretend extroversion can be hard and draining for introverts. Introverts are more willing to act in a more extroverted way to further a cause they care about. Thinking about how their furthering their cause helps others helps introverted-givers marshal resources to act more extroverted (for some time only: conditions apply!). Susan gives the example of Brian Little, the acclaimed, introverted professor and giver who has a very extroverted persona in the classroom. Little constantly monitors the audience and adjusts his speech accordingly, peppering anecdotes or facts depending on the response of the audience. Here’s what Susan says:

(Little)views self-monitoring as an act of modesty. It’s about accommodating oneself to situational norms rather than “grinding down everything to one’s own needs and concerns.” 

Little thinks about othershis studentsand self-monitors to further his causeeducating studentsthat he cares about deeply.

So, used in healthy way, their innate generosity can help givers help others AND help themselves.

What are some other ways that givers can use their inherent concern for other people to make positive changes in their life as well as the lives of others? Would love to hear your comments below!

You May Also Like
The Right Way to Give—A lesson by Adam Grant and Dr. Seuss
The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant

On a lighter note 🙂
Thinking of others

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.

You May Also Like:

The Right Way to Give—A lesson by Adam Grant and Dr. Seuss

If you’ve read Dr. Seuss as a child–or if you’re like me–more recently as aadam grant - dr. seussn adult too, you may remember Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose. On a beautiful summer day, Thidwick is busy strolling and munching some moose moss with the rest of the herd, when a Bingle Bug calls to him:

The bug called out, Hey!

It’s such a long road

And it’s such a hot day

Would you mind if I rode on your horns for a way?

Thidwick replies:

 Of course not! smiled Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose.

I’m happy my antlers can be of some use.

There’s room there to spare, and I’m happy to share!

Be my guest and I hope that you’re comfortable there!

If this was a perfect world, the bug would be off with a Big Bungle Bug thank you to Thidwick. But instead, the bug extends a warm welcome to anyone else who’s looking for a nice and free place to stay. Soon a spider weaves a web, a bird makes a nest, and a woodpecker drill holes in Thidwick’s antlers.

Shocked at how these pests are using Thidwick, his friends advise him:


I would, but I can’t, sobbed poor Thidwick. They’re guests!

Furious, the herd storms off, leaving Thidwick behind.


We like Thidwick, the big hearted moose. We feel his pain. He’s the proverbial nice guy who finishes last.

But…do nice guys really finish last? Adam Grant explores this question in his wonderful book Give and Take. Adam found that there are three types of people: “givers”, who give generously without doing the math on what they’re getting in return (like Thidwick), “takers”, who take as much as they can (like the pests), and “matchers,” who are as generous as the person they’re dealing with.

We’ve been told, and fear, that nice guys finish last, while unscrupulous takers finish first. But is this true? Adam found that givers finish first – and last. Turns out, there are two types of givers: selfless givers and otherish givers.

  • Selfless givers typically have high other-interest and low self-interest. Adam writes: “They give their time and energy without regard for their own needs, and they pay a price for it. Selfless giving is a form of pathological altruism, which is defined by researcher Barbara Oakley as “unhealthy focus on others to the detriment of one’s own needs, such that in the process of giving, givers end up harming themselves.” Just like Thidwick.
  • Otherish givers have high other-interest AND high self-interest. Adam found that other-interest and self-interest are not opposite ends of the spectrum – it’s possible to have both these motivations at the same time. Otherish givers value giving to others, but they are also ambitious and protective of their interests. In fact, Adam found that successful givers are as ambitious as takers or matchers. Imagine Thidwick, all grown up, having learnt to watch out for himself.

It turns out that otherish givers actually emerge on top, whereas selfless givers end up at the bottom, an easy target for the takers of the world. (Aaah, Thidwick!)


What happened to Thidwick after the herd left him? Things got worse. More pests climbed aboard.  When winter set in and moose moss got scarce, Thidwick tried to move to a greener side of the lake but the pests wouldn’t let him. One day, he heard bullets near him – the hunters wanted his head to stuff and hang in their Club. His antlers weighed him down and he couldn’t run, try as he might. It seemed the end was inevitable:


It’s true, he was in a most terrible spot,

But NOW he remembered a thing he’d forgot!

A wonderful something that happens each year

To the horns of all moose and the horns of all deer.

Today was the day Thidwick happened to know…

That OLD horns come off so that NEW ones can grow!

And he called to the pests on his horns as he threw ‘em,

You wanted my horns; now you’re quite welcome to ‘em!

Keep ‘em! They’re yours!

As for ME, I shall take

Myself to the far distant

Side of the Lake!

And what happened to the takers?

His old horns today are

Where you knew they would be.

His guests are still on them,

All stuffed, as they should be.

And so Dr. Seuss helped Thidwick learn the dangers of selfless giving and he lived happily ever after as an otherish giver on the far side of the lake!

The End