Strategies for Power
Here is a discussion of the communication of power which I wrote for my 50 Communication Strategies book and that I thought might be of interest to a wide variety of readers.
Power is the ability of one person to influence what another person thinks or does. You have power over another person to the extent that you can influence what this person thinks or what this person does. And, conversely, another person has power over you to the extent that he or she can influence what you think or do. Perhaps the most important aspect of power to recognize is that power is asymmetrical: If one person has greater power, the other person must have less. If you are stronger than another person, then this person is weaker than you. If you are richer, then the other person must be poorer. In any one area—for example, strength or financial wealth—one person has more and, inevitably and by definition, the other person has less (is weaker or poorer). The varied types of power are identified in the & Box, Types of Power.
Types of Power
Six types of power are especially important to understand: legitimate, referent, reward, coercive, expert, and information or persuasion.
§ You hold legitimate power when others believe you have a right—by virtue of your position—to influence or control others’ behaviors. For example, as an employer, judge, manager, or police officer, you’d have legitimate power by virtue of your role.
§ You have referent power when others wish to be like you. Referent power holders often are attractive, have considerable prestige, and are well liked and well respected. For example, you may have referent power over a younger brother because he wants to be like you.
§ You have reward power when you control the rewards that others want. Rewards may be material (money, promotion, jewelry) or social (love, friendship, respect). For example, teachers have reward power over students because they control grades, letters of recommendation, and social approval.
§ You have coercive power when you have the ability to administer punishments to or remove rewards from others if they do not do as you wish. Usually, people who have reward power also have coercive power. For example, teachers may give poor grades or withhold recommendations. But be careful: Coercive power may reduce your other power bases. It can have a negative impact when used, for example, by supervisors on subordinates in business.
§ You have expert power when others see you as having expertise or special knowledge. Your expert power increases when you’re perceived as being unbiased and as having nothing personally to gain from exerting this power. For example, judges have expert power in legal matters and doctors have expert power in medical matters.
§ You have information power—also called “persuasion power”—when others see you as having the ability to communicate logically and persuasively. For example, researchers and scientists may acquire information power because people perceive them as informed and critical thinkers.
Power can increase and decrease. Although people differ greatly in the amount of power they wield at any time and in any specific area, everyone can increase their power in some ways. You can lift weights and increase your physical power. You can learn the techniques of negotiation and increase your power in group situations. You can learn the principles of communication and increase your persuasive power. Power can also be decreased. Probably the most common way to lose power is by unsuccessfully trying to control another’s behavior. For example, the person who threatens you with punishment and then fails to carry out the threat loses power. Another way to lose power is to allow others to control you; for example, to allow others to take unfair advantage of you. When you don’t confront these power tactics of others, you lose power yourself.
Power follows the principle of less interest. The more a person needs a relationship, the less power that person has in it. The less a person needs a relationship, the greater is that person’s power. In a love relationship, for example, the person who maintains greater power is the one who would find it easier to break up the relationship. The person who is unwilling (or unable) to break up has little power, precisely because he or she is dependent on the relationship and the rewards provided by the other person.
Power generates privilege. When one person has power over another person, the person with power is generally assumed to have certain privileges, many of which are communication privileges. And the greater the power difference, the greater is the license of the more powerful individual. Sometimes we’re mindful of the privilege or license that comes with power. Most often, however, we seem to operate mindlessly, with no one questioning the power structure. For example, those with power may encroach on the territory of those with little power (a supervisor can enter the cubicle of a trainee but the trainee cannot enter the office of the supervisor—at least not without being invited or before knocking). Similarly, a supervisor may touch the arm or rearrange the collar of a subordinate, but not the other way around. The general may touch the corporal, but not the other way around. The doctor may put his or her arm on a patient, but the patient would not do that to a doctor.
Here are some strategies for communicating power nonverbally.
· Avoid adaptors. Adaptors are touching movements of the self (playing with your hair or rubbing your nose), of others (removing a speck of dust from someone’s cheek), or of objects (poking holes in the Styrofoam coffee cup). Adaptors may make you appear uncomfortable and hence without power. Avoid these especially when you wish to communicate confidence and control.
· Use consistent packaging. Be especially careful that your verbal and nonverbal messages don’t contradict each other. Each will weaken the other.
· Use facial expressions and gestures as appropriate. These help you express your concern for the other person as well as your comfort and control of the communication situation. Smile to show approval and that you’re enjoying yourself but avoid excessive or purposeless smiling.
· Select the right chairs. When sitting, select chairs you can get in and out of easily; avoid deep plush chairs that you will sink into and will have trouble getting out of.
· Shake. To communicate confidence with your handshake, exert more pressure than usual and hold the grip a bit longer than normal.
· Dress conservatively. Other things being equal, dress relatively conservatively if you want to influence others; conservative clothing is usually associated with power and status. Trendy and fad clothing usually communicates a lack of power and status. And, of course, expensive clothing is more powerful than inexpensive clothing.
· Walk and gesture slowly and purposefully. To appear hurried is to appear as without power, as if you were rushing to meet the expectations of another person who had power over you. Avoid gestures and movements that can appear random and without purpose. This will generally signal discomfort.
· Maintain eye contact. People who maintain eye contact are judged to be more at ease and less afraid to engage in meaningful interaction than those who avoid eye contact. (Be aware, however, that in some contexts, if you use excessive or protracted direct eye contact, you may be seen as exercising coercive power. When you break eye contact, direct your gaze downward; otherwise you’ll communicate a lack of interest in the other person.
· Avoid vocalized pauses. Avoid the “ers” and “ahs” that frequently punctuate conversations when you’re not quite sure of what to say next.
· Maintain reasonably close distances between yourself and those with whom you interact. If the distance is too far, you may be seen as fearful or uninvolved. If the distance is too close, you may be seen as pushy or overly aggressive.
· Relax. A relaxed posture communicates confidence and control—qualities of power. A tense body posture can easily signal fear and discomfort—qualities of the powerless.
· Vary your speech rate, volume, and pitch as appropriate to the conversation. Be careful to avoid a monotone speaking style.
· Take up your space. If you crouch in the corner of a couch, for example, you’re going to appear less powerful than if you take up your allotted space. If you take up too much space, for example, spreading your legs apart and in effect taking up two spaces, you’re likely to be seen as impolite.
· Still your feet. Excessive foot movement usually signals a discomfort and hence little power.
Here are a few verbal strategies:
· Avoid hesitations. Avoid the all too common, for example, “I er want to say that ah this one is er the best, you know?” Hesitations make you sound unprepared and uncertain.
· Avoid too many intensifiers. Intensifiers are fine in moderation; overused, they are likely to decrease your power. Avoid, for example, statements like these: “Really, this was the greatest; it was truly phenomenal.” Too many intensifiers make everything sound the same and don’t allow you to intensify what should be emphasized.
· Avoid disqualifiers. When you disqualify yourself you detract from your credibility and hence power. Avoid, for example, statements like “I didn’t read the entire article, but . . .” or “I didn’t actually see the accident, but. . . .” Disqualifiers signal a lack of competence and a feeling of uncertainty.
· Avoid tag questions. Avoid, for example, statements such as That was a great movie, wasn’t it? She’s brilliant, don’t you think? Tag questions ask for another’s agreement and therefore may signal your need for agreement and your own uncertainty.
· Avoid self-critical statements. When you criticize yourself and say, for example, “I’m not very good at this” or “This is my first interview” you’re just calling attention to your lack of power. Self-critical statements signal a lack of confidence and may make public your own inadequacies.
· Avoid slang and vulgar expressions. Slang and vulgarity signal low social class and hence little power.