Expression - Persuasive communication

How Much Confidence Is Enough? When to Dial It Down

It’s possible to hurt your credibility by coming across as too confident.

In the previous two articles, we’ve focused on ways to project greater confidence in your communications with others, but there are times that it can be taken too far. For example, mitigating your speech may lead to others being unsure of what you want, but the person who is always completely direct may get tiresome very quickly.

We also discussed the confidence that comes from conviction. Conviction stays logically grounded and does not quite cross the line into passion. It’s wonderful to be passionate about an issue, but in business communication it may come across as excessively emotional and can quickly turn people off.

You don’t always have to be forceful and direct to be persuasive; we all know people who are very persuasive and soft-spoken at the same time. When I went through basic training at the Air Force Academy long ago, most of the upperclassmen were loud, direct, and aggressive in getting their point across. They certainly did not lack for confidence in the way they expressed themselves. But one upperclassman in my squadron was different. When he saw something that needed correcting (which happened far more times than I could count), he would calmly approach, and quietly say something like, “you might want to try it this way…” His tone was mild, yet somehow there was steel in it. 35 years later, he still remains one of the most impressive leaders I’ve ever come across.

He taught me that sometimes a light touch is better than a heavy hand. Quiet speech may actually convey confidence by showing that someone has enough faith in themselves or in their position that they don’t feel the need to force it across. In such cases, being too forceful may make you look defensive or shrill.

Being overly forceful may also reduce your credibility, as indicated by the results of a study involving witnesses in mock trials. They found that the low-confidence jurors were the least credible, the high-confidence jurors were more credible, and the medium-confidence jurors the most credible. Call it the Goldilocks effect:

“… if expert witnesses have good posture, but do not lean forward to persuade jurors; speak with a fair amount of certainty, but not cockiness; and speak at a measured pace rather than rapidly, they are apt to exude just the right amount of confidence to persuade jurors that their testimony is accurate.”[i]

When to dial it down

Situational factors may also help you decide when it is better to tone down the forcefulness in your speech:

When your credibility is already established. If your credibility or authority is already established, you can afford to mitigate your speech through “quiet leadership.” You have earned the right to be indirect—just be sure that you are not misunderstood.

When you need input to improve your thinking. People who are assertive all the time may close off challenges to their thinking because they do not realize the chilling effect it can have on full and frank discussion. A person who dismisses doubts as negative thinking, for example, may close out valid concerns that could expose flaws in his thinking. According to an April 2008 Harvard Business Review article, bosses are especially bad at realizing how much their poor listening habits prevent subordinates from expressing themselves freely.

When you’re trying to encourage diversity of thought. There are times to persuade and times to listen. For example, when the right decision is not yet clear it helps to have a diversity of opinions, so it is important to make the atmosphere safe for people to express themselves. That’s when it’s best to dial down the confidence and turn up the humility.

The person who says, “I’ve studied the problem closely, and there’s no way you’ll ever convince me that it will work”, is apt to close off further discussion. Or, if she says it in a room with other assertive speakers, she practically guarantees an argument, in which the two sides will be more concerned with scoring points than arriving at the truth.

The loudest talker may tend to get his way, but over time runs the risk of being derided as the person who “is often wrong, but never in doubt.”

When teamwork is essential. Confident speaking can sometimes be a zero-sum game because it can raise your credibility relative to others in the group. This is OK when you’re trying to score points, but sometimes long-term group harmony requires that other opinions and positions get their turn. So, confident speaking must be tempered with openness to other opinions if you want to maintain long term credibility or want to encourage a balanced discussion.

How do you find the right amount?

The best way to strike the right note, just as the best way to find the right approach in any communication, is to focus on your intended audience. Know your listeners, approach them accordingly, and then pay close attention to how your message is coming across. Be direct and clear in your expression, but ask questions to understand their reaction and their thinking.

Robert Sutton cites the approach taken at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. They call it having strong opinions, weakly held. In other words, cultivate an attitude of humility and acceptance of the other person’s right to their point of view, without giving up your own position.

Also, be aware that even after all your careful preparation, there are likely to be weaknesses in your argument. Be aware of your weaknesses and don’t let your enthusiasm for your ideas outrun your supporting evidence. Be clear in your own mind—and make it clear to others—the difference between facts and opinions.


[i] “Jurors Reveal Which Experts They’re Most Apt to Believe,” http://pn.psychiatryonline.org/content/44/12/4.2.full

accessed 3_10_10

Related Posts
On Civility
January 25, 2011
1 Comment
  • More interesting stuff, Jack!

    This quote in particular stuck out to me: “I’ve studied the problem closely, and there’s no way you’ll ever convince me that it will work.”

    I’ve found that people who understand how to study a “problem closely” realize that one must be open to counter-evidence in order to truly understand any issue. In other words, one way to determine that someone has NOT studied a problem closely might be how closed off he or she is to new evidence or other perspectives (which may indicate a potential for confirmation bias and other threats to validity).

    Thanks for your continued commitment to providing all of us with food for critical thought, Jack!

Leave Your Comment

Your Comment*

Your Name*
Your Webpage

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.