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The power of powerless communication: Adam Grant at TEDxEast

Translator: Megan Goyt
Reviewer: TED Translators admin Good evening everyone. I’m really thrilled to be here. 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, try to change the way they live
their lives and do their jobs for four hours? It sounded 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. I came in knowing
that this was going to be a challenge. When I walked in I saw something
I had only seen on the silver screen. 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”. 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, 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?” I knew I had to earn
their trust and respect. So I started talking
through my credentials, knowledge, and started giving them 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. They really touched me so much that
I saved them and framed them on my wall. 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
to gain useful insight.” (Laughter) 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. I started doing what I always do
when I’m looking for motivation, which was looking through cartoons. I found this one. It’s an elephant saying, “I’m right there
in the room and no one acknowledges me.” (Laughter) I thought that was profound. I thought, there is an elephant
in this room: I’m a twenty something kid trying to tell
these senior air force leaders that I know something. 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. Instead of going
through all my credentials and trying to talk about my expertice I opened by looking around the room,
and saying, “OK, some of you know that I used
to perform as a professional magician. I’ve actually been working on a little bit of mentalism
and mind reading today. I know that many of you in this room
are thinking at this very moment, ‘What can I possibly learn
from a professor who’s 12 years old?'” They just stared at me. Dead silence. Then one of the guys reached for his gun,
and I was like, “This is not good.” But then they started laughing,
and one of the commanders raised his hand and said, “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, he 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. 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 may be better
in some situations to talk tentatively, with a little bit of uncertainty. I also want to talk about this habit
we all have here in Western society to give answers
when people ask us questions. And why it may be advantageous to ask more questions
and to 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 got to hear them
giving lots of answers. Some of the people were experts,
some of them 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,
you got to hear 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 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?” (Laughter) 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 that could
allow you to see him as a human being. To connect and identify with him. And it seemed to 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 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 you’re 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 same information
but changes the wording a little bit. 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. (Laughter) 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 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
I want to think about, which is now not about the form of the words but
what comes at the end of your sentences. 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. After the conversation,
this little get-to-know-you discussion, you had to rate
how much you liked the group. It turned out the more you talked,
the more you liked the group. 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,
“This is really simple. Most of us find that communicating
our thoughts to others is a supremely enjoyable
learning experience.” (Laughter) I don’t know how that works. Pennebaker calls it the joy of talking. He says, “Look, one of the best ways
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.” There’s a great way to do this. 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. (Laughter) 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,
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 empty seats, and then was able to open it up
at very low cost. Why did this happen? There’s research by Kenny Liljenquist 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.” (Laughter) 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. That’s exactly what could happen
for Annie. I think advice seeking is an incredibly
powerful way of 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 hit
to our assertiveness but in the process show
that we’re interested in what other people have to say. We’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. 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 you all consider,
even if you’re not willing to try it in every conversation,
meeting or 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 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!” The people with really high
self-esteem were like, “You’re kind of an incompetent idiot.” But the people with average selfesteem
who had appropriate levels of selfconfidence and selfworth
really connected to that powerless form of communication. Thank you.

38 Replies to “The power of powerless communication: Adam Grant at TEDxEast”

  • This is old wine in a new bottle: Most of it is in the 80-year-old bestseller, "How to Win Friends and Influence People": Focus on others, ask questions, be humble, especially when dealing with average folks. He's a polished presenter but we must always seek the steak rather than get seduced by the sizzle.

  • And this is a problem because…. why?

    Also, I have never read that book because the title puts me off. I don;t want to win friends. I don't want to "influence" people.

    I'd say we need that new bottle.

  • Nice talk ,but what you call "powerless" communication is in fact culturally the way that women are socialized to communicate in many contexts. Your points are spot on and I appreciate that you were able to see the power of using other forms of communication besides "ascertive/power talk". You should call "powerless" speech something less pejorative. Perhaps you could call it " collaborative" speech or humble speech.  My pet peeve is when using " powerless" speech as you call it. I sometimes asks questions to engage people in meetings and most ascertive/power talkers just answer the questions as if I am stupid for not knowing the answer and feel proud of themselves for having the answer as opposed to even understanding that what I'm trying to do it engage them and "play low" in order that they don't feel threatened.. It's annoying to no end. So if you're going to take some of this "powerless" communication on, one needs to be ready for some people to take is literally as they use your powerless speech as a moment to further their own power and take advanage of a collabortive way of communicating.

     Tag speech is usually not about not knowing or being unsure it's about giving others the chance to participate in the idea or coversation. Women are socialized to not use directive speech as often as men so when we have something to say we are told culturally that in order to do it we should use tagged speech, "powerless speech" as you call it in order that we do not make ascertive talkers feel threatened. . . this is "playig low" and speech is powerful. so please do think about trying this talk again with a gender lense and rebrand "powerless speech"

    As you point out in your talk this way of communicating is anythig but powerless.

  • And non-chalantly states 'bombed a few countries along the way'….right where he lost me..that statement is taken way too lightly in passing.

  • When and where did this "western culture" ever teach you to display strengths and credentials in order to be effective?

  • liked the talk but I'm guessing this only works for straight, white males and a lot of what he's saying is common sense – especially when it comes to giving presentations. Imagining a woman (especially a woman of colour) doing this is probably like watching her get crucified since everyone's going to assume she's got nothing brilliant to say anyway. I've heard women, especially scientists or anyone in a higher position (that most would not accept or expect she'd be in), have to do exactly the opposite of what he's suggesting if they want to be taken seriously.

  • women don't need this talk. women are already socialized to be 2nd-class/empathetic, so these verbal tics and phrasing choices are already coded as feminine in society. the women who fail to behave this way are called names and branded difficult, whereas the men who do so are just called normal.

  • Adam speaks to the most effective 21st Century style of leadership. the bad old days were full of powerful people who were excellent at demotivation

  • Being your self is enough. It's about adapting to the situation, and the personality type that you are dealing with. Pleaser, Dominant, Logical…

  • I had an employee, who also was once sent out to start a church plant, and we often talked outside of work about ministry stuff, with the goal of reaching people. He shared with me, and a small group of others once, that his tactic when first meeting someone is to ask them questions about themselves, followed by saying their name over and over again to help him remembers the person. This all sounds well, until the day comes when he's talking to you…and asking you questions which I knew he could care less about, and listening to him constantly say someone else's name in a conversation which is not natural to the way we talk. So while the practice sounds good, the form of how it's used is all the more important–don't be fake like my friend was, fake, drives people away.

  • You know what, on the moment 9.11 (no reference intended, I swear!) it hit me, that this talk defines the difference between the British vs American way of communication. And please take into consideration that I am a foreigner in the UK, English language is not my native, and I speak as an outsider (more or less…)

  • "You will never get into any trouble by admitting that you are wrong. that will stop all argument and inspire your opponent to be just as fair and open and broad-minded as you are. It will make him want to admit that he, too, may be wrong." – D.C.

  • It's not only what Adam Grant says, but also how he says what he wants to say.
    Absolutely brilliant.

  • Nice subject, well started at the beginning…However, the unnatural body language of the speaker was so strong, that I couldn't focus on the content…it does not look authentic. All in all, No value added.

  • interesting speech and topic. Im thinking high school teaching scenarios might challenge his thesis though. Kids want to see confidence out the front don't they? What's your game plan teacher? Are you in charge or not?

  • "Most of us find that communicating our thoughts to others is a supremely enjoyable learning experience." Very nicely put and great food for thought for fine-tuning your teaching approach.

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