PrintEarlier this year I shared the thesis of a workshop I designed and facilitated for the Robert Toigo Foundation Groundbreakers Women in Leadership conferenceConfident AND Collaborative Communication. I explored the challenge of balancing confident and collaborative styles that allow us to share our unique perspectives with confidence, while maintaining the ability to engage others through collaboration.

The session was very well received and the Robert Toigo Foundation has asked me to facilitate a similar session in 2015 for young professionals of color on their way to top MBA programs. As I continue to explore the topic in preparation for the upcoming session, I discovered the concept of powerless communication in Adam Grant’s book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Check out previous blog posts including Givers, Takers and Matchers and The Secret Sauce of Successful Giving for more information about this thought-provoking book.

Grant’s thesis on the subject of communication is that powerless communication is more effective than powerful communication, with a few exceptions detailed below. Powerless communication techniques include asking questions, talking tentatively, showing vulnerability, and seeking advice. Powerful communication includes offering answers, talking boldly, displaying strength and sharing one’s own point of view. Through powerless communication, he argues, we are able to make stronger connections, build trust, and persuade and negotiate more successfully. The positive outcomes of powerless communication include better collaboration, building stronger networks, and ultimately garnering greater influence.

So while I advocate for balancing confident (powerful) with collaborative (powerless) communication, Grant would argue that powerless communication is almost always more effective. The exceptions he suggests are (1) when you really are incompetent regarding a particular subject, in which case powerless communication will reinforce your lack of knowledge, whereas powerful speak will make you appear more competent, (2) short term situations such as interviews where you have limited time and opportunity to leave an impression and, (3) leadership roles in which you lead followers who are more reactive than proactive and simply want to be told what to do.

I challenge whether powerless communication should be the default style for the target audiences I am working with at the Robert Toigo Foundation: young minority professionals and women. Arguably young people, people of color, and women often must underscore their competence in order to be as effective. Being overly collaborative or powerless can be viewed as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Arguably, these subgroups are judged on their outward appearance and the ability to make a strong impression quickly to overcome potential biases is more important than for other subgroups.

What has your experience been? Do you think that there might be relevant age, race and gender biases that need to be considered as it relates to powerless vs. powerful communication?

Dr. Pam