Avoid “powerless communication;” be brain-friendly instead

by | Jul 17, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

Must read. Must watch.

That describes my sentiments about the work of these two best-selling authors: Susan Cain of Quiet and Dr. Adam Grant of Give and Take and Originals.

Both also write thought-provoking, content rich newsletters, respectively the Quiet Revolution and Granted, which I usually enjoy.  

However, the latest Quiet Revolution newsletter with its lead article How to Stop Being a Doormat (Without Giving Up Your Common Decency) made my spine stiffen. That’s because the newsletter also features 7 Ways to Use the Power of Powerless Communication, which is Adam Grant’s term.

According to Grant, “powerless communication” in face-to-face situations involves asking questions; admitting to your shortcomings; and being tentative rather than assertive in your speech patterns and words.

The term “powerless communication” is not only a misnomer. It’s also pejorative.  

People who communicate in conversations that Grant describes as “powerless” are actually considerate, open-minded, and enlightened and even powerful – especially if you subscribe to Dr. Dacher Keltner’s concept of power.

The author of The Power Paradox and the faculty director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center defines power as “the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks.”

Furthermore, Keltner maintains that power “is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people.”

Powerful individuals like these, including Grant himself, instead practice brain-friendly communication, which benefits the senders and receivers of communication.

When you experience brain-friendly communication as either sender or receiver, you’re more likely to feel positive – or at least neutral – rather than threatened.

You don’t have to worry as much about protecting your personal safety, so you’re able to relax and reduce your cognitive load. That frees up the relatively small amount of working memory in your prefrontal cortex (your executive brain), which gives you more mental space to think clearly.

Why the disconnect between the “powerless communication” phrase and the concept of “brain-friendly communication”? Grant is an organizational psychologist, not a neuroscientist.

Neuroscientists and those like me who have studied neuroscience and neuroleadership know that the three techniques that Grant advocates appeal to the brain, especially asking questions.

When you ask others thoughtful questions in a caring, curious manner (not like you’re cross-examining anyone), you show interest and respect as you learn about them and their situation.

Asking questions helps those who are answering the questions too. When you ask reflective questions and give individuals time to think and then respond – a la “inquire and retire,” — you can help people get their own insights.

These ah-ha moments not only will engage them, but also help them remember what you discussed and be more inspired to act.

In fact, some neuroscientists now think these self-generated insights are one of the more effective ways to move people to change. That’s because when individuals experience an epiphany or “aha” idea on their own, they systematically make new connections in their brain. These connections change the brain immediately and in the future. For more about this, see the post Why an a-ha helps behavior change.

Learning about people and their situations by asking questions also helps you improve your perspective-taking, which is what the scientists call looking at issues from others’ perspectives or the more colloquial “putting yourself in others’ shoes.”

By doing so, you can become more empathetic, which the “social brain” also likes and is a key element of Keltner’s work.

We humans are social animals and we tend to gravitate toward people we identify as empathetic and relatable. We appreciate that we can connect faster and deeper and build greater rapport with people who “get us.”

And if you also come across as genuine and humble, that’s even more appealing to the social brain.

For example, Susan Cain writes that powerful communicators “inspire love and trust and who lead with an unbeatable mix of empathy and competence.”

These powerful communicators know how to put others at ease using the suggestions Grant advises plus many other brain-friendly techniques.

Using your brain — not giving up your power — to connect to others and their brains creates genuine two-way communication.   

What’s your reaction to the power of brain-friendly communication versus powerless communication?


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