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Home » The Power of Powerless Communication: Adam Grant (Transcript)

The Power of Powerless Communication: Adam Grant (Transcript)

Full text of Adam Grant’s talk titled “The Power of Powerless Communication” at TEDxEast conference.


Adam Grant – author of ‘Give and Take’

Good evening everyone. I’m really thrilled to be here and I want to take you back to when I was in my mid-twenties: Just finished my doctorate in organizational psychology, and I got one of these calls that everyone dreads. Which was, can you go in front of a group of people you’ve never met, and try to change the way they live their lives and do their jobs for four hours?

And it sounded kind of interesting so I said yes, and then I found out it was going to be wing commanders in the U.S. Air Force. Average age mid-fifties, several thousand hours of flying time, many had managed multi-billion dollar budgets, and bombed a few countries along the way.

And I came in knowing that this was going to be a challenge. And when I walked in I saw something that I had only seen on the silver screen in the past, which was of course my favorite character from “Top Gun”.

And just like on “Top Gun” they actually had the real nicknames. So when the guys walked into the room and it was mostly guys, they were “Gunner” and “Striker”, “Sand Dude” and “Stealth”. And that was the only thing I was allowed to call them because that was the only thing I was allowed to know about them, because the rest of it was classified.

So I’m sitting out, a 25 year old kid, looking out at the crowd of basically people my parents’ age, and trying to figure out, “What do I do?” And I knew I had to earn their trust and respect.

So I started talking through my credentials, my knowledge, and then started giving them a lot of background on how much they could learn from me. Which I soon learned was a big mistake. I got feedback forms at the end of the four hours. And they really touched me so much that I saved them and framed them on my wall. And I brought just a sample for you here:

This is from “Striker” who says, “Adam missed the needs of the audience… I gained very little from the session. But I trust the instructor they’ve gained useful insight.”

And that was only my second favorite. The best feedback form said, “Well, to sum up this session in four hours there was more quality information in the audience than on the podium.”

Ouch! Now, I was ready to quit teaching at that point. But I had one more session with Air Force Wing Commanders on my calendar, and I couldn’t weasel my way out of it.

I knew I had to do something different. And I started doing what I always do when I’m looking for motivation, which was looking through cartoons. And I found this one. It says it’s an elephant saying:

“I’m right there in the room, and no one even acknowledges me.” 

I thought that was profound. And I thought, there is an elephant in this room, which is: I’m a twenty something kid trying to tell these senior air force leaders that I know something. And I decided I needed to do something a little different.

So I was ready to give the exact same four hour presentation, but I switched up my intro. And when I walked in, instead of going through all my credentials and trying to talk about my expertise, I just opened by looking around the room, and saying, “OK, some of you know that I used to perform as a professional magician. And I’ve actually been working on a little bit of mentalism and mind reading today. And I know that many of you in this room are thinking right at this very moment, ‘What can I possibly learn from a professor who’s 12 years old?’”

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And they just stared at me. Dead silence. Then one of the guys reached for his gun, and like, “This is not good.” But then they started laughing, and one of the commanders raised his hand and said, “No no no, that’s way off. I’m sure you’re at least 13.” It became sort of a running joke for the next four hours.

I delivered the same presentation, but the feedback at the end was very different. One person wrote, “Although junior in experience, Adam dealt with the studies in an interesting way.” I’ll take it.

Another guy said, “I can’t believe Adam is only 12! Despite that he did a great job.”

I thought this was just a really interesting experience, right? Everything I was taught to do in Western culture, to be confident and assertive and display my credentials and expertise, backfired. And yet here I was, coming in and making fun of myself, calling out the elephant in the room. And it turned into a really positive experience.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a taste for me of what’s called the power of powerless communication. And I want to talk about that tonight. I want to talk about not just displaying our strengths, but also revealing our shortcomings. And how important that is for building trust, respect and connection with the people we interact with.

I want to talk about assertive speech, power talk. In fact, it might be better in some situations to talk tentatively, with a little bit of uncertainty. I also want to talk about this habit that we all have here in Western society to give answers when people ask us questions. And why it might be advantageous, in fact, to ask more questions and give fewer answers.

The place I want to start is revealing your shortcomings and why this is a good idea. Years ago the psychologist Elliot Aronson did an amazing experiment. He audio-taped people doing a Quiz Bowl tournament, and you got to hear them giving lots of answers.

Some of the people were experts, some of them were novices. The experts got most of the questions right. The novices basically fumbled along the way and didn’t know most of the answers.

And at the very end of the tape, half the time you got to hear all of a sudden a big crash on the floor. And the candidate says, “Oh my gosh! I just spilled coffee all over myself.” And basically sounds really flustered.

And Aronson had this crazy idea. Which was maybe spilling coffee on yourself would make you more likable. And that’s exactly what he found. But only for the experts. The experts who had just gone and answered a bunch of questions effectively and correctly, when they spilled coffee on themselves, people liked them more. Because it seemed to humanize them. You’re like, “Oh wow, that’s a real person. I can relate to that person.” And you start to empathize and you warmed up a little bit.

If you spill coffee on yourself as a novice it just shows that you’re even more incompetent. Not just that you know nothing, but you can’t even hold a cup of coffee straight.

But once you’ve established competence it seems, Aronson has called this the Pratfall Effect, that a small mistake in a domain that was totally unrelated to competence actually led people to warm up to the otherwise competent person. And I think that’s a great case for revealing our shortcomings, for actually acknowledging our weaknesses and mistakes, not only our strengths.

Now, years ago someone that you’ve all heard of did this, I think, masterfully. His name was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was in a debate with one of his opponents. His opponent decided that he was going to make sure that nobody in the audience believed a word he said, and he said, “Lincoln, you are two-faced.”

And Lincoln, without even skipping a beat said, “Two-faced? Do you really think if I had another face I would wear this one?”

I thought that was such a smart example of revealing a shortcoming. He wasn’t calling into question his competence as a leader or a politician. He was making fun of something in his appearance that could allow you to see him as a human being. To connect and identify with him. And it seemed to really build a lot of trust with that audience.

So that’s one form of powerless communication, being open about your vulnerabilities and weakness not only your strengths.

There’s a second one that I want to talk about that we all experience every day. When we are in my favorite setting in life which of course is the meeting. When you are in meetings, I was taught at least, that I’m supposed to come prepared with an opinion, deliver that opinion, back it up with data and evidence, and make sure that everybody believes me.

But Alison Fragale at the University of North Carolina shows something a little bit different. She says when you are working with other people, if you’re collaborating in a team, if you’re serving a client on a project, any time you have to interact and be interdependent with someone else that actually those people will care more, on first blush, about whether you’re concerned about their interests, about whether you’re warm, about whether you’re caring than they will about your competence. And as a result, it may be the case that talking powerlessly is more effective than talking powerfully.

One of her studies I thought was quite brilliant. You’re in a desert survival situation. You have to rank a series of items and decide which ones are most important. One of the candidates comes to you and says, “This flashlight. It’s not rated high enough. It needs to be higher. It’s the only reliable night signaling device.”

People tend not to like that. They hear that and say, “Wow, this person is too assertive, too dominant, too confident, not somebody I can work with because he doesn’t play well with others.”

Then Alison gives the exact same information but changes the wording a little bit. And instead the person says, “Hey, do you think the flashlight should maybe be rated higher? It may be a pretty reliable signaling device.”

The content is identical, but now instead of being assertive, confident, and authoritative it’s a little bit hesitant and tentative. And guess what, this person earns more trust, more respect, and more status.

People are more willing to listen to this person who talks tentatively, powerlessly. Because he or she is willing, by that statement, to defer to the interest of others as opposed to just projecting his or her own opinion.

So second recommendation beyond revealing your own shortcomings is to think maybe, just maybe is it possible that powerless communication could be powerful? And in fact, that talking tentatively could maybe, just maybe, work better than talking confidently. A couple ways you can do that, if you so choose, perhaps.

Hesitations: “well”, “um”, “uh”, “you know”. We hate that. That’s verbal clutter. But guess what, in an interdependent collaboration that shows concern for others. It shows a willingness to listen to their opinions.

Hedges: “kind of”, “sort of”, “maybe”, “probably”, “I think”. Those actually build trust, respect, and warmth too when you’re working with other people.

Disclaimers: “Well this maybe be a bad idea, but…” Although I have to offer a disclaimer about that, which is most of the time disclaimers don’t work.

Intensifiers: adding “really”, “quite”, “very” to extenuate speech is another form of talking a little bit more tentatively.

Finally, using tag questions. Instead of saying, “Here’s an interesting idea…” “Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?” Again showing an openness to the opinions of others. It’s a powerful way, although appearing powerless, to earn trust and respect and status.

There’s a third strategy that I want to think about, which is now not about the form necessarily of the words but what comes at the end of your sentences. And I want to take you to HBO, in Kansas City, circa 1977.

A man named Bill Grumbles has no sales experience, and he’s sent to Kansas City to open up a new HBO office. The guy knows nothing about sales and most people who are his customers don’t even have cable. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s also a pretty shy, quiet guy.

So he starts walking into his customers’ offices and looking around. And he noticed sometimes they have pictures of their kids, sometime they have a Kansas City Cheifs jersey. He just starts asking questions. And they talk for awhile, and then he talks a little bit more.

One of his clients comes up a few weeks later and says, “You know Bill, you are a great conversationalist.” And Bill is shocked because he’s hardly said a word. He’s just asked questions. Well, the average sales person at HBO in the late 70’s was bringing in about one contract a month. Bill Grumbles was bringing in one contract a week.

There was something about this approach of selling by asking questions, as opposed to giving answers, that really worked. I didn’t understand it until I came across a great study by [James Penabick].

He gathered people in a group, strangers, much like a room like this. You’re in a group of let’s say 10 or 15, and he said, “I want you to just spend 15 minutes getting to know each other, and really talking about anything you want.” This is America so most people just chose the weather. But you could’ve chosen anything.

And after the conversation, this little get-to-know-you discussion, you had to rate how much you liked the group. And It turned out the more you talked, the more you liked the group. But then Pennebaker asked another question that I thought was really surprising. He said, “How much did you learn about the other people in the group?”

And here’s the kicker. The more you talked, the more you claimed you learned about the rest of the group, which by my account is humanly impossible. And Pennebaker says, “Well this is really simple. Most of us find that communicating our thoughts to others is a supremely enjoyable learning experience.”

I don’t know how that works. But Pennebaker calls it the joy of talking. He says, “Look, one of the best ways that you can gain the respect and trust of people around you is to ask them questions and allow them too to experience the joy of talking.”

And there’s a great way to do this, actually. I prepared a little cartoon for those of you who want to test your own joy in talking. It doesn’t even have to be talking. It could just be thinking.

This is the narcissist test:

Step 1: Take a moment to think about yourself.

And now Step 2, if you made it there you’re not a narcissist.

I think that illustrates the joy of talking beautifully. Asking questions, I think, is an incredibly powerful way to get other people to engage with us. To actually start a conversation as opposed to just giving our answers.

There’s one kind of question that turns out to work better than any other if you wanted to influence someone. A couple of years ago, I had a student named Annie. She was studying at the University of Michigan, and her plant at her chemical firm closed, and she couldn’t continue studying for her degree.

She was offered a transfer to Connecticut, but she had no way of flying back across the country. She was trying to figure out what to do. She was taking my negotiation class and I gave her little bit of advice.

I said, “Look, you might want to think about, basically, you’re getting a lot of outside offers, and making sure that you have strong options, and then maybe you’ll get some kind of opportunity to be able to keep your degree going and keep a job.”

But she didn’t do that. She had a much better idea. Instead, she ended up going in and spending a few minutes talking to one of her managers. Then a few weeks later she was offered a seat on the company’s private jet for free, where she could fly across the country twice a week, until she finished her degree. She was also offered a free rental car, and in case the jet was unavailable anyday, paid-for flights by the company. And she did this for 9 months, riding across the country twice a week.

How did she do it?

Well instead of going in to her HR manager with powerful communication, “Here are my alternatives…”, “Here’s why you should keep me on board…” and “Make this happen.” She opened herself up to be a little bit more vulnerable.

And she said, “You know what, I’m really in a bind. I would really love your advice. I’m trying to finish my degree at Michigan. I need some way of getting there if I’m going to move out to Connecticut. What would you do if you were in my shoes?”

At which point, the HR manager said, “Let me see if I can make some calls.” Ended up reaching out to some of the members of the executive team. One of them knew that the private jet went back and forth two days a week, and always has some empty seats, and then was able to open it up at very low cost.

Why did this happen?

There’s research by Kenny Liljenquist which shows that when you ask someone for advice three things tend to happen:

The first one is, you flatter them. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “We all admire the wisdom of people who come to us for advice.” Because they have really good taste, right? But that happens, right? The moment somebody asks you for advice you’re like, “Wow, this person thought I had a lot of wisdom. How cool!”

And then the second thing that happens is in order to give that person advice you have to make a recommendation to having walked in their shoes. You have to look at the dilemma, problem or situation from their perspective.

And once you’ve walked in their shoes you tend to identify a little bit more. You will empathize a little bit more. And you put those two things together, the person just flattered you and you kind of understand their position.

At that point if there is any way you can help them you’re much more likely to step up and say, “Yeah, you know what? I want to do something to support this person in any way I can.” And then if that person was an adversary they may become an advocate. And that’s exactly what could happen for Annie.

I think advice seeking is an incredibly powerful way of actually influencing others, despite the fact that it’s admitting that you don’t have all the answers, that you don’t know what to do, that you need and depend on the recommendation and wisdom of other people.

So I think there’s tremendous power in powerless communication. I think that when we go out of our way to reveal our shortcomings as opposed to just signaling our strengths that people can relate to us. They see us as a human being.

I think that when we talk tentatively, and when we say some things that don’t make us sound so confident, we may take a little bit of hit to our assertiveness, but in the process show that we’re interested in what other people have to say and ee’re willing to make a genuine connection with them and work with them as equals as opposed to in a steep hierarchy.

Likewise, when we start asking people questions we learn things about them, and let them experience the great joy we all love when we get to talk about our favorite topic on Earth, ourselves. And you can see this in all sorts of different places. My mother was telling me recently that her secret to dating is to go on a date with a guy and then start asking questions about himself. That usually will last about seven dates before she gets a word in.

Now, he learns nothing about her, but along the way she gets to learn a lot about him and whether he’s a good fit for the kind of person she wants to be with. At minimum, he gets to experience the joy of talking until she throws him out on the street.

So I hope that you all consider, even if you’re not willing to try it in every conversation, or every meeting or every presentation, remember, the moment you think about power talk and power words, and being as dominant, confident and authoritative as you feel like you need to be in order to command respect, that actually there is power in speaking a little bit more softly, tentatively, and quietly to the point where other people can relate to you as a human being.

There’s one caveat though. All of this seems to work better if people don’t have really high self-esteem. Because if you are trying to communicate with and influence an audience who thinks they’re awesome, they do not want to see you as human. They want you to be superhuman.

So Aronson found that when the coffee cup spilt, and this person seemed like an idiot, it was the people with average self-esteem, who actually saw themselves as human who connected the most.

The people with low self-esteem were like, “Oh my God. You’re like one of me. Get away!”

And the people with really high self-esteem were like, “You’re kind of an incompetent idiot.”

But the people with average self-esteem who had appropriate levels of self-confidence and self-worth really connected to that powerless form of communication. Thank you.


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