It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It: How to Communicate Power
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It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It: How to Communicate Power

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Check out the latest Think Fast Talk Smart podcast episode where I interview Professor Deb Gruenfeld about her research and new book Acting with Power: Why we are more powerful than we believe.

Power exists in every relationship — whether we like that idea or not — and for a person to be effective in any role, their power needs to be understood.

In this episode, Matt Abrahams sits down with Professor of Organizational Behavior Deborah Gruenfeld to discuss her new book, Acting with Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe. Gruenfeld shares how body language can give us power or take it from us, and advises how we can use power for good.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business and hosted by Matt Abrahams. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Hello. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. One of the crazy things in my life is how power applies. I teach. My students take notes. They ask questions. They respect some of the things that I say. And then all of a sudden I come home, and I don’t get the same kind of treatment. My kids don’t listen; politeness sometimes goes out the door. My status and power feel very different at work and at home. Power permeates all facets of our personal and professional lives.

Today I am so excited to be joined by Deb Gruenfeld, who is the Joseph McDonald Professor of Organizational Behavior at the GSB. Deb’s research examines how people are transformed by the organizations and structures in which they work. She teaches an incredibly popular class called Acting With Power and just released a book with the same name, Acting With Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe. Since we’re all at home these days, Deb and I were able to catch up virtually.

Deb, thanks so much for being here, and congratulations on your new book. I’m reading it now, and I’m really enjoying it.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Oh, that’s great. Thanks for saying that. And yeah, I’m very happy to be on the other side of the launch. So [cheers to that].

Matt Abrahams: I can only imagine. All right. Hey, let’s get started. I’d like to start with a definitional question: How do you define power? And how does it play out in our relationships at work and at home?

Deborah Gruenfeld: So power is one of those topics: People think about it in a lot of different ways. We make the mistake often of thinking that power is like a personal quality. But power is actually a resource that comes out of our relationships and how we manage our relationships, and it has to do with the extent to which relationship partners need one another.

So whenever people need one another, they both have power in a relationship. The person who needs the other less relative to vice versa has more power in the relationship. So it really has to do with how much value we add in our relationships and how many alternatives our relationship partners have to working with us.

So you can see power coming from many different types of sources. At work, it comes from formal reporting relationships. There’s positional power. When we’re the boss, we have the authority or the right to tell people what to do, and people need us for raises and bonuses, evaluations, whatever it is.

But we see the same types of dynamics even in situations where there are no formal reporting relationships. So in peers, for example, there are power differences. One person will often need the other friend more at a particular time for a particular reason, and so they’ll find themselves in a relatively powerless position where maybe they have to work a little bit harder on the relationship than their partner does. The same thing is true in marriages. I’m sorry to say, but usually that question comes up.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Deborah Gruenfeld: So we love the idea of equality in marriage; but actually, I think what we really find is that the way couples manage power differences is that they get to have power in different realms. So you get to be the decider in certain realms, and your spouse gets to be the decider in other realms. And that’s as close as we get to equality, I think. But again, it just has to do with how eager we are to please others and let them have their way based on how much we need them.

Matt Abrahams: I didn’t know our conversation, Deb, was going to be more like therapy for me. You took me back to high school and being part of different groups, and then you took me into my relationship…

Deborah Gruenfeld: I know.

Matt Abrahams: Power has a lot of dynamics that can influence people. I know you’ve worked with actors to help explore the dynamics and manifestations of power. Based on what you’ve learned, I’m curious what power looks like in terms of nonverbal behavior and presence.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Sure. So I’ll try to give you just a few words that maybe your listeners can remember when thinking about whether they’re using their body in a way that projects power. The first one is whether you’re on the square, whether you’re facing someone directly with your weight evenly distributed on both legs as opposed to turned to the side with your head tilted, maybe your weight on one hip. Anything we do to take our body off the square so that we’re not facing someone directly undermines how powerful we feel to our relationship partners. So being square is one.

We sometimes talk about stillness and working on stillness. A lot of us, when we’re anxious, do a lot of things physically with our bodies that lets the energy kind of leak out in all different types of directions. We fidget. We groom ourselves. We play with our hair.

One of the things you’ll notice if you pay attention to people who have a lot of authority is they tend to be very still and focused in how they use their energy, and stillness of the head is actually a very important one. So you’ll notice often when someone is very authoritative they speak in a way while they’re keeping their head perfectly still.

I worked with some young company founders recently who told me that one of them had been coached to put on his headdress before going into a meeting as a way of practicing stillness and keeping his head perfectly still. If you imagine yourself wearing a heavy headdress or a crown, what you realize: It keeps your body straight up and down, but it also forces you to elongate your neck and keep your head relatively still. So stillness is a good one.

Silence is another interesting one. Speaking to fill the silence is a way of giving power away. So being comfortable holding silence often is a good way of shifting the balance of power in your own direction. We talk a lot about spreading out. So we know that the way animals project power is to be physically expansive. They keep their arms away from their body. They man-spread: keep their knees apart. What I like to focus on to be more practical or professional and gender-neutral is thinking about things like—basically, just keeping your chest open is very important.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Deborah Gruenfeld: So it just conveys kind of a generosity and a lack of fear if you can keep your shoulders back and your chest open.

Matt Abrahams: When I teach some of this—and it sounds like it dovetails a lot of what you’re saying—it’s all about being big, balanced, still, and slow is what it sounds like.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Yes. Absolutely, yeah. One other thing I’ll mention—and this gets a little bit more into the realm of things that some people feel uncomfortable with—is recognizing how we use space and what that conveys about power.

So one of the things, if you watch high- and low-power people interact, you’ll notice is that higher-ranking people kind of have the right to move into others’ social bubbles in a way that is not reciprocal. So whenever we stand closer to someone, move in on them, physically touch them on the shoulder or touch their things, even, it’s a very—kind of an aggressive way of behaving. And when we back away from people and give them a lot of space, it kind of conveys the opposite feeling and sense of power.

It’s also interesting to just pay attention to an experiment with allowing your arms to lead your body. So we do a lot of work on this in my class—pointing at someone, for example. We saw a lot of this in the news in the last year or so with Nancy Pelosi.

Pointing at someone is a very aggressive and very intimidating thing to do. Any time we use our arms to move in on someone else’s space, there’s something a little bit threatening or intimidating about it. It suggests that we’re not ready to back off. So it’s interesting to experiment with trying to move into other people’s space.

Matt Abrahams: I think experimenting with all of these things is really critical to helping people see what can happen for them in terms of their power. And a lot of people just act out of habit and don’t actually try on some of these new things. I know in the work you do and the classes you teach, you have your students actually trying this, and I think that’s a great way to learn.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Yeah. Yeah, it’s fascinating and it’s a little bit…People say, “Oh, it feels unnatural,” or, “It feels inauthentic,” until you do it.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Deborah Gruenfeld: And then you realize: “Oh, you know what? There was a part of me that could do that, actually, authentically.” Once you get yourself into the right head space and the right reason for doing it, this is how we grow.

Matt Abrahams: Right, it’s all about giving yourself permission to try that. Thank you.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Right.

Matt Abrahams: Do you have some insights on language and power? For example, I notice a lot of what I call “hedging” language, things like “kind of,” “sort of,” and “I think.” And to my mind, this just reduces people’s mojo. Any thoughts on the actual words we use and how it relates to power?

Deborah Gruenfeld: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that I’ve learned from working with actors is that an authoritative way of speaking is to speak in complete sentences. They’re often not long sentences, but they’re sentences that have a clear beginning and a clear endpoint. It’s part of expressing yourself in a decisive, authoritative way that doesn’t leave things open for discussion.

The hedging that you’re talking about are all verbal kind of tics or ways of showing people that we’re not sure we’re right and that we’re open to being questioned or being challenged. And it does undercut your mojo. I think that that’s true. On the other hand, I think there are situations where…For example, when you are actually the smartest person in the room, in can be disarming in a positive way to express yourself with less certainty and less confidence and some sort of humility or sense that you may not have all the answers.

Matt Abrahams: I think the key point that you just raised there is the purposefulness of them. I think many people do them out of habit, and they’re not using them strategically. But I think it’s fascinating that they do provide a strategic opportunity in communication.

Deborah Gruenfeld: That’s right. That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: Again, a lot of what we do in the classes I teach is talk about transitioning habits into choices. And this, to me, sounds like a clear choice people could make to help them rather than just invoking it out of habit.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to think about it.

Matt Abrahams: So as we come to an end, I ask all of the guests on this podcast the same three questions, and I hope you’re game to give me your answers for these.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Yep, absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: All right. So if you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation-slide title, what would it be?

Deborah Gruenfeld: All right, let’s see if I can remember how I got this down to five to seven words. “The Most Important Person in the Scene Is Never You.”

Matt Abrahams: Oh, I like that. Oh, give it a little bit more.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Just to tell you what it means?

Matt Abrahams: It’s provocative. Yes.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Oh, it’s so great. So it’s something I heard a director say when she was working with two students who were practicing a conversation reading a script and were both feeling very self-conscious and looking to her for direction about how they were supposed to say something and whether it sounded okay. She said to one of them…

She said to both of them first, she said: “Who is the most important person in this scene?” And they both were looking at each other and trying to figure it out: Well, she starts talking first, but he actually has all the power. And then she looked at them. She looked at the guy, and she said: “The most important person in this scene is her. Move off yourself.”

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Deborah Gruenfeld: “The most important person in this scene is her.” And then she looked at the woman and said: “Who is the most important person in this scene?” And the woman said: “Me?” And she said: “No. The most important person in this scene is him.”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Deborah Gruenfeld: “Move off yourself.” Do you know what I mean? So to me, it is the most useful thing you can do to be effective as a communicator—is to learn to train your attention on the other person, and to do everything you can to make the other person look good and feel smart and get something out of the interaction. And the bonus of that is that [where you] don’t have any mental resources to think about yourself, there’s no fear. There’s no anxiety. There’s no shame. None of that stuff. You don’t even see the audience.

Matt Abrahams: Right. In all the strategic communication work that we do, we talk a lot about being in service of your audience.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Excellent.

Matt Abrahams: It’s about their need. It’s not about your need, and that’s echoed nicely.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Yes. Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: So let me move on and ask you Question No. 2: Who is a communicator that you admire? And why?

Deborah Gruenfeld: So my favorite communicator right now is Andrew Cuomo.

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Deborah Gruenfeld: And the reason for that is because one of the things that, I think, is most important for leaders to understand in terms of owning their power and authority—a little bit, goes back to the first question you asked about authenticity—is to recognize that, as a leader and a person in a position of power, your most important duty is to play your part in someone else’s story.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Deborah Gruenfeld: And I’ve heard him say…I just heard him say this. Trevor Noah asked him the other day: “Why aren’t you responding to the president in a way that conveys your irritation? Why aren’t you engaging in the fights with him? When he’s critical of you, why don’t you respond?” He said: “My feelings have nothing to do with how I show up, and they should have nothing to do with how I show up. I have a job to do, and my job is to run the state of New York and to…”

I don’t remember the words that he used, but the words I would use is to say his job is to be a base of security for other people. And he just—he embodies so many of those things. If you watch his body language, if you look at the way he speaks, we don’t actually need to know what he’s saying. And he doesn’t even know that much. A lot of times, he doesn’t have the answers.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Deborah Gruenfeld: But the way he shows up every day, on time, in his uniform with the seal, with the flags behind him, with the experts around him, and just speaks in this calm, controlled, reassuring way, he’s letting us know he’s got this. And in a time when there’s a crisis and when there’s chaos, this is what we need from our leaders. I just admire the way he’s doing it. To me, it’s a perfect example of…

Of course, he’s terrified like the rest of us. He’s had sick family members. He’s dealing with a nightmare in New York. And it’s interesting because, I realize when I watch him, he doesn’t have the answers. He doesn’t know what the right thing to do is. He has no more certainty than the rest of us about what’s coming. But the way he communicates makes us feel like we can relax and go about doing what we need to do because he’s behaving like the person in charge.

So to me, it’s a perfect example of what it looks like to own your power and authority. I am enjoying watching him, and I’m enjoying knowing that people from all over the world are watching him. Not because they need to know what he’s saying but because they need to see him doing what he’s doing.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right.

Deborah Gruenfeld: He understands the theater of it, and I think it’s a great example of why the whole idea of acting and playing a role is important for using power well.

Matt Abrahams: I like that phrase you used: “the theater of it.” So much of our communication is that theater, and many of us fixate on just one or two elements instead of the broader scene that’s being played out. So thank you for that.

Deborah Gruenfeld: Sure.

Matt Abrahams: Our final question: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Deborah Gruenfeld: “Social role” is the first one: knowing what part you’re playing.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Deborah Gruenfeld: “Visual focus” is the second one: being able to focus visually on other people and the things that you’re doing so that you’re not watching yourself. And the third one is “generous heart.”

Matt Abrahams: Wow. That was a great way to summarize the lessons that you’ve taught all of us about power and how to embrace our power. Deb, thank you so much. I really appreciate your insights and guidance today.

Deborah Gruenfeld: My pleasure, Matt. So delighted you’re interested, and it’s been great to talk with you about these things.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you. We can all benefit from thinking about and leveraging the power we have and the power we bring to our interactions with others. Thank you.

(As published on the Stanford GSB website.)


June 9, 2020