By Chen Feng, M.S. Candidate, HRMD Program
“People choose HR because they want to help people and hate math.” You probably have heard about this sentence if you ever took a class with Professor Vincent Suppa. I personally find it relatable and so do many students in our program. We certainly will have our own stories beyond this simple fact. But the goal of being helpful to some degree brings us together to the field of HR.
And the majority of us are female, not surprisingly.
Women share many characteristics so, I never spotted any potential problem in how we communicated. That is, until one Saturday, I was taking Business Strategy and Ethics class with Professor Suppa. One of our peers wanted to ask a question and started with: “Sorry Professor, I have a question.” Instead of asking the question she had, Vincent paused and pulled out the commercial from Pantene – the “Sorry but not sorry” video you may have seen. Then he turned to the male students in class: “Will you say sorry when you want to ask a question?” “Oh hell no.” The students answered with 100% honesty.
That’s when I realized that power, which often means how much you can influence others, would be easily taken away from you as soon as you don’t communicate correctly. We should all keep an eye on it and make sure we’re not losing power.
We can choose to adopt a much more aggressive communication style, but it’s hard to make such change overnight and it usually ends up making us sounding like someone else.
The perfect solution would then be – powerless communication.
It’s a concept first brought to public by Adam Grant. He basically says that people who pose questions instead of answers, admit their shortcomings and use tentative instead of assertive speech are some of the world’s most powerful communicators. Part of his philosophy lies in the fact that when people think you’re trying to influence them, they put their guard up. However, when they feel you’re trying to help them, or to muse your way to the right answer, or to be honest about your own imperfections, they open up to you. They hear what you have to say.
It’s not at all a brand-new topic but I believe some of us, like me, have forgotten about it or didn’t carry it out in the right way. So here are some tips from this article: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Powerless Communication by Susan Cain Author, New York Times Bestseller ‘QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’.
- Be humble but humorous. When the famously unassuming Lincoln was called two-faced during a debate, Grant recalls, he said: “Two-faced? If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”
- Ask for help or advice. The other day, I read a Harvard Business Review article online and was asked to complete a survey. I’m a working mom, so I try to make every minute of my screen time count. I ignore surveys. But HBR must have been talking to Adam Grant. “We value your feedback!” they said. “Would you help us make our website better?” There was something in the humility of the request that made it hard to say no.
- Pair your openness with competence. A revealing experiment led by psychologist Elliot Aronson tracked audience reactions to participants in a game show. When the high-performing contestants spilled coffee on themselves, the audience liked them more. They were competent, yet also relatable: human and imperfect. But when the mediocre performers did the same thing, people liked them less. The takeaway? If you’re doing your job well, people want you to be human. It’s when you’re underperforming that powerless communication backfires.
- When you communicate with someone, ask yourself three questions: What do you have to learn from them? How can you help them or otherwise express warmth? And can you find ways of letting your true personality show?
- Frame your opinions as suggestions. “I wonder if it would work to do it this way?” Give people the space to disagree with you.
- Be authentic. Whatever you feel inside has a way of expressing itself. If you feel kind and open, people will know it. They’ll also sense the reverse. You can’t just slap Grant’s approaches on to an otherwise arrogant self-presentation.
- Introverts and women, rejoice! This research is great news for two groups in particular: women and introverts, both of whom tend naturally to use powerless communication styles and worry that this is a bad thing in a take-charge world. Based on the evidence, you can stop worrying.
I’ll start to apply these tips from now. If you’re already doing a good job, keep it up! If you’re struggling with communicating effectively and influencing others, I hope you find this article relevant and please join me cultivating the power of powerless communication.