When Acting Less Powerful is The Right Move

Some people think they have to act powerfully in every situation. Their goal is to “win” every battle.

Always have the cleverer comeback. Always interrupt people more than they interrupt you. Have others laugh at your jokes, but don’t laugh at theirs.

And the classic: never break eye contact with anyone ever!

Be dominant at all times. That’s how you become a strong, assertive communicator. Even if it means being a total annoying jerk.

There are two big problems with this philosophy. First is that it’s a lot of mental energy and stress.¬†And second is that it just doesn’t work.

Stress and pressure

You have to be constantly thinking “one step ahead of the other guy.”

You can never let up. You must always be trying to outwit and outsmart everyone else. You can’t show an ounce of weakness or vulnerability.

It’s exhausting. It’s not natural. No normal human being can maintain such a facade indefinitely.

When it pays to be “weaker”

More importantly, the idea that a strong communicator is super-dominant at all times is just wrong.

People who think that way simply don’t understand what true influence really is and how it works.

A good communicator is someone who can strategically use different communication styles when appropriate.

Sometimes he is quiet and self-effacing, and sometimes assertive and attention-grabbing.

He knows when to interrupt someone, and when to let them ramble.

He knows when to confront someone in front of the group, and when to let them save face, even when it’s clear they are in the wrong.

A good communicator has a sophisticated sense of social dynamics and of the balance of power in group settings.

He knows that, when in the presence of an obviously higher-status person, it is actually the preferred strategy to come across as weaker, to acknowledge their accomplishments, and to keep disagreements minimal and indirect.

Such an approach shows social intelligence. It signals to the higher-status person that you aren’t a threat and helps to create trust.

My dad told me of a saying he heard in his native Dominican Republic: “Always laugh at the rich man’s jokes.”

Sometimes you have to put your ego aside and give the other person a “win” while thinking about the long term.

A good communicator also knows how to time his disagreements.

He won’t just reflexively blurt out a contrarian opinion when meeting someone new. He will nod and accept what they are saying on the surface.

Later on, in a situation where he has more control, he can disagree more directly and advocate a different perspective. Timing is everything.

And the same principles apply to leadership.

A good leader knows when to let others win. In fact he often intentionally wants others to win much more than himself.

If his team members feel like they are succeeding, they will work harder, be more motivated, have positive energy and eagerly contribute.

If only he (the leader) is seen as winning all the time, then the team’s energy and motivation will be deflated.

A good leader knows how to create the right mix of incentives, praise, recognition, private punishments, public punishments, and even mea culpas to keep his team cohesive and loyal.

Narrow communication is limiting and self-destructive. Be flexible, smart and keep a broad mix of skills in your communication toolbox.

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