7 Ways To Use The Power Of Powerless Communication In 2024

Professor Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and the youngest tenured professor at Wharton and author of the New York Times bestseller, “Give and Take”, has researched people who inspire love and trust, who lead with an unbeatable mix of empathy and competence, and others who appear insecure or ineffectual. 

He researched the power of powerless communication.

Let’s dive right into it.

Powerless Communication
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

7 Ways To Use Powerless Communication:

  1. Be Humble And Playful

In a light hearted way, let your audience know you’re aware of your shortcomings, or your inexperience, something that could be obvious to them. 

For example, if you’re nervous giving your first speech, it may come through in your presentation. Acknowledge you’re aware of this right at the beginning by saying something like, “If I look a little green up here – it’s not the lights. This is my first presentation, so bear with me while I relax into it.”

  1. Ask For Advice or Help

It’s actually a sign of strength to ask for help, not so easy for everyone. So by asking for advice, a person is acknowledging they value your feedback.

Saying something like, “Would you help us make our website better or more user friendly?”, shows you’re open to help or advice from others.

People who pose questions instead of answers find others have something very valuable to contribute that they may not have considered.

  1. Reveal Your Shortcomings

An experiment done by psychologist Elliot Aronson looked at audience reactions to participants of a game show. When the winning contestants spilled coffee on themselves, the audience liked them and were found to be accepted more. They were competent, yet also relatable. 

Although when the mediocre participants spilled coffee on themselves, people liked them less.

Grant says that people who use powerless communication styles fall into two categories — some are doormats but just as many are superstars.

People want to see others do a good job, yet they want to see that you’re human. It’s when you’re underperforming that powerless communication backfires.

  1. Frame Your Opinions As Suggestions

Allow others the space to offer their view when you frame your opinions as suggestions. Such as, “I wonder if it would work by doing it this way”, or “This might be a good way to do this.”

This way you avoid the appearance of a “know-it-all” and are seen as using tentative instead of assertive speech, leaving open space to disagree or add contributing ideas.

  1. Just Be Yourself

Be authentic because if you’re not, people will sense it. They will think you’re trying to be something you’re not. Whatever you feel inside will be communicated in some way. 

If you’re open and kind people will feel that and if you’re not they’ll feel that too. So it could be best to have openness with competence.

  1. Ask Yourself Three Questions

When you are ready to communicate with someone ask yourself three questions:

  • What do I have to learn from them? 
  • How can I help them or otherwise express warmth?
  • Can I find ways of letting my true personality show?
  1. Big Win For Introverts And Women

All this is great news for women and introverts. Generally both of these groups tend to naturally use powerless communication styles.

Often they’re left with the impression that it’s a bad thing in what seems like a take-charge world. Based on all these findings, you can stop worrying.

Power Of Communication

Leadership is an important role that many people will find themselves stepping into in the coming years. By being powerful communicators people can be powerful leaders.

Are powerful communicators people who use assertiveness or tentative conversation? Which way is a good way to go?

The word, communication, is derived from latin, communis and communicare, and broken down it literally means “common unity with action”. The action in this case is to exchange ideas to create union between people.

Use the power of communication as a skill for leaders to inspire, persuade, and earn peoples’ confidence. About how they can build trust, inspire loyalty, lead effectively, and build good relationships around you.

Communication can be broken down into 4 aspects.

  1. Expressing Yourself

Learning how to express ourselves even when it feels emotionally charged and sensitive.

  1. Listening and Responding

We speak and listen based on the notion of reciprocity and trust building by recognizing that the other person deserves our respect and attention.

We can derive a deeper meaning from a conversation than simply what is said.

  1. Attention and Intention

Being aware of the quality of our attention to the other person’s words, tone, facial expressions and body language.

It’s also important to be clear on the intention of the thoughts or ideas you wish to express.

  1. Understand and Respond to People In Their “Style”

Have the self-awareness to identify the other person’s perspective and adopt their own communication style into your response. This can help facilitate productivity among people with different or conflicting points of view.

Power Of Communication
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Powerless Communication Definition

Professor Adam Grant explains powerless communication in his acclaimed TEDx talk.

Grant says that people who don’t know all the answers, admit their shortcomings and use tentative language are some of the world’s most powerful communicators.

This less aggressive style of communication, with a subtle expression of doubt, using suggestions, and questions rather than orders, is a communication style giving people the space to come together respectfully.

He says you can build more trust, respect and genuine connections by using powerless communication in face-to-face situations involving:

  • asking questions
  • admitting to your shortcomings
  • being tentative rather than assertive in your speech patterns and words. 

An example of admitting to your shortcomings, was demonstrated as humorous when the famously unassuming Lincoln was called two faced during a debate. Abraham Lincoln said, “Two faced? If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

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 hearing what you have to say.

The only caveat is to show that you can be taken seriously. If all you do is to provide hesitant answers, you won’t be listened to.

If the other person already knows that you are competent, if your credibility is not in question, then powerless communication works miracles.

Most of us don’t like being told what to do because we want to make our own choices. We want to feel respected.

Communication Strategies For Introverts

Introverts often have challenges in taking a leadership role or speaking up to contribute their ideas in a group setting. To overcome this, get to know yourself and your strengths.

The book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts and how much we lose in doing so.

Introverts naturally prefer smaller groups and one-on-one interaction. This is a strength because the role of leaders and aspiring leaders is to build trust and rapport with their management teams, key customers, analysts and media who cover their business. 

That happens one conversation at a time. It helps with meaningful friendships too.

Asking questions that are open ended for those times when you’re at a networking or social event. Something like, “Are you working on anything exciting?” or “What was the highlight of your week?” Open ended questions lead to conversations.

Introverts thrive from time alone where it’s quiet and they can just be still and let creativity and ideas flow. Gift yourself that time on a regular basis by scheduling it in, if necessary.

When anticipating a meeting, think in advance what ideas you’d like to share. Know that it’s perfectly acceptable to not immediately answer a question. Try statements such as, “Let me find the research on that and get back to you.” It might feel awkward at first, but it’s honest and perfectly acceptable. Your colleagues can appreciate that.

Remember, communication is a skill which can be practiced and improved on at any moment.

The book “Quiet”, by Susan Cain, has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how introverts see themselves.

So go easy on yourself especially when you’re outside your comfort zone. At the same time know that that’s the space where possibility can arise.

Communication Strategies
Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Powerless Communication Examples

Here are some practical ways to use the power of powerless communication.

Instead of:

  1. Strengths ——> Shortcomings

Adam Grant was a twenty something professor, with stellar credentials, talking to middle aged career military people. Even though he was offering a very informative and intelligent speech, the elephant in the room was his youth.

Because of his youth, the crowd didn’t take him seriously at all.

Once he acknowledged this obvious dichotomy, by joking that he was twelve, he gained the respect of the room.

  1. Assertive speech ——-> Tentative talk

In meetings with small group decision making, suggestions prefaced with qualifiers like, “I wonder”, “Maybe”, “Is it possible”, “Could it be,” “Perhaps,” “Might,” etc. Framing your conversation style tentatively will be accepted more often and gain more respect from your listeners because they’ll sense you’re open to input from others.

Instead of saying, “This is the only way to do this”, which could be taken as being too assertive and not being able to play well with others, use tentative instead, “I wonder if it would be a good way to do this”.

Ask for suggestions, “I wonder if anyone else has some thoughts on this.”

Or offer a disclaimer, such as, “This may be a bad idea, but…” 

Even tag your statement with a question, such as, “That’s interesting isn’t it?” Instead of saying, “This is an interesting thing” at the beginning of your statement.

  1. Giving answers ——-> Asking questions

Studies have shown that sales people make more sales by asking questions and being a good conversationalist than those who just talk. People enjoy talking about their thoughts and opinions.

Instead of answers, admit you don’t know all of them. Ask questions and leave space for others to offer their thoughts and creative ideas.

Ask for suggestions, “I wonder what your thoughts are.” In this way, give people the space to offer their ideas.

These methods, wherever you go, have been found to work wonders. Consider trying out the power of powerless communication the next time you’re talking to people, especially if you’re an introvert. 

Remember communicators fall into two categories, according to Grant. Be the superstar.

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About The Author

Bijan Kholghi is a certified life coach with the Milton Erickson Institute Heidelberg (Germany). He helps clients and couples reach breakthroughs in their lives by changing subconscious patterns. His solution-oriented approach is based on Systemic- and Hypnotherapy.