Newsletter #540 – The Power of Powerless Communication

powerless 1In Give and Take, Anthony Grant’s new book (see last week’s newsletter), an entire chapter discusses powerless communication. At first the two words powerless and communication suggested to me that this would be a discussion of communication failure. Aren’t effective speakers and writers supposed to be assertive, exuding confidence, captivating and dynamic? These words don’t suggest anything powerless.

Grant cites research to suggest that there are two especially effective paths to having an influence. The first is dominance where we impress audiences and others with our strong, assertive mannerisms and words. This is powerful communication. Speakers emphasize their competence and expertise so others are impressed. Sometimes that works well. The second route to influence is to earn prestige so others respect and like those who speak. This comes best from powerless communication. It’s a term most associated with Susan Cain’s best selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Powerless communication works best with speakers or writers who demonstrate or are known to be capable. There is no need or attempt to wow others, impress or overwhelm them. Instead the powerless approach is more relaxed and engaging.

In a TED talk that is worth watching, Grant gives three marks of effective powerless communication:

  1. Instead of emphasizing your strengths, be open about your vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Be humble and authentic, able to laugh at yourself.
  2. Use less assertive speech and more tentative language. Frame your opinions as suggestions like this: “I am wondering if this might work…. What do you think?”
  3. Rather than giving answers, raise questions or ask others to give their input or their help. Then listen. In a paragraph that sounds a lot like what we do in coaching, Grant writes, “By asking questions about their plans and intentions, we increase the likelihood that they actually act on these plans and intentions.”

So let me try this below.

Would powerless communication be good for you? When have you used it? Many of us would like to read your observations. Please comment. Thanks.

  1. I think this is a really interesting Post. I’ve never looked at it this way.
    I’m far more for using less assertive speech; I also respond to others who do so. If I have a point to make I’m more likely to ask a question that will begin a conversation rather than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.
    The only thing is, I have to be careful not to be too manipulative in crafting my question to solicit the answer I want! Too many years in Advertising I’m afraid!

    • Thank you. Your response reminds me of the importance of the personalities of speakers. As Phil mentions in his post, the powerless approach, while useful for everyone, can be especially effective with more introverted communicators. Also with people like me who look like we are extroverts – and probably are – but are more comfortable pulling back and being more introverted.

    • Rodger Bufford
    • August 15th, 2013

    It seems like powerless communication is a standard part of the psychotherapy process. Motivational interviewing comes to mind as a good example. Perhaps another form is what I have come to call the Columbo approach–asking questions that invite exploration rather than making statements or giving conclusions.

    Rodger Bufford

    • Thanks Rodger. As you may know, i have moved into coaching during the past few years and am not much involved with counseling. Your description of the Columbo method sounds like the core of what we do in coaching.

  2. Love your blog, Gary. Read it each time with keen interest!
    I first used ‘powerless comms’ (without realizing that’s what I was doing) 28 years ago in a youth retreat, simply as a part of ‘getting real’. It was one of the best youth retreats we ever had! Nowadays, my fellow pastors and I do it regularly at our ‘Breakthru Weekends’ for the same reason.
    Having said that, effective communications seems to me to be mutt-faceted (different strokes for different folks at different times) and ‘power talk’ would have its place as well at the right time.
    Perhaps Jesus’ style of communications serve best to illustrate this. In His Sermon on the Mount, it seems that both elements – the use of assertive speech as well as te raising of questions – are present therein in one single discourse!

    • Hi Edmund. Your comments are always insightful and balanced. You are right: both approaches are needed depending on the audience. You are one of the best communicators I know and are a great model to me of many things, including the way you think and communicate. Thanks for your response.

  3. Gary – I will share this with those we work with in the area of evangelism #LOVE2020 LOVE2020.com – This is helpful for the introvert but also timely for those wanting to be heard in our radically changing culture.

    • Hey Phil, You are a continual encouragement. Your post reminds me of the subtitle of Michael Hyatt’s book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

  4. Heya! I realize this is kind of off-topic but I had to ask.
    Does running a well-established website like yours take a massive amount work?
    I’m completely new to operating a blog however I
    do write in my journal on a daily basis.
    I’d like to start a blog so I will be able to share my own experience and thoughts online.
    Please let me know if you have any recommendations or tips for new aspiring blog owners.
    Thankyou!

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