Expression - Persuasive communication

When Verbal Confidence Backfires

In a previous post, I suggested ways to increase your verbal confidence to make your speech more powerful and persuasive. While I hope you benefited from it, I also hope that you did not take it too far, because like most strong medicine, it’s one of those prescriptions that should be accompanied by a warning label. It’s not appropriate in all contexts. Sometimes too much verbal confidence can hurt your persuasive power.

For example, my boss once put me in touch with a senior executive at another company, who happened to be a friend of his. I was probably a bit intimidated and anxious to make a good impression, so I used some of the techniques I wrote about last week in order to come across as more confident. He later told my boss that I was very cocky.

This may sound crazy, but would you be open to the idea that sometimes it may be better to dial down your verbal confidence—to actually have less power in your speech? As I show in this post, there are certain situations where a humbler approach can be more effective in getting you what you want.

When to dial it down

When there are clear status differences between you and the person you’re trying to influence. Relative status is very important in human relationships, and higher status people tend to guard it jealously. When you talk to them, you can come across as cocky or arrogant if you speak too confidently. Even worse, you risk being seen as a threat to their status. As David Rock says, “A sense of increasing status can be more rewarding than money, and a sense of decreasing status can feel like your life is in danger.”

Higher status people expect a certain level of deference to their position, and they don’t react well when they don’t get it. According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, subordinates who speak out are seen as “difficult, coercive, and self-serving.”[1] This applies not only to higher-ups, but in our market economy where the “customer is always right”, it applies to buyers as well. If you haven’t earned the right (by having specialized knowledge or expertise that they lack), they will gladly take you down a peg.

When you are already perceived as an expert. Even if you have earned the right to speak more confidently, that does not always mean you should. When your credentials are not in doubt, you may actually boost your credibility by hedging your statements a little. That’s because hedging or softening signals that you’re open minded and have considered both (or more) sides of the question. It also gives the impression that you’re well calibrated—that you know what you don’t know.

When your audience is initially skeptical. When someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, it’s natural to act like a stubborn ass and shut them out or to immediately think of a counterargument. That’s not a good place to start, so it helps to get them to lower their shield a bit and at least open their minds enough to be willing to listen. If getting agreement is more important to you than being right, you might want to consider being more hesitant in your expression.

How to tone down your verbal confidence without screwing it up

Use hedges. Words such as I think, maybe, what do you think? soften the power and directness of your speech.

Give disclaimers. “It doesn’t work every time, but I’ve found that…” A statement like this couples open-mindedness and long experience.

Ask questions. What is the best way to get agreement that will last? By making it the other person’s idea, which is why questions are among the most powerful tools you have in your persuasive toolbox, particularly when you use them to get the listener to tell you the story you want them to hear. The other benefit of using questions is that people would rather listen to themselves than to you.

Lead with your weaknesses. Adam Grant calls it the Sarick Effect, and it’s effective for two reasons. First, it can steal the thunder of someone who is just waiting to pounce on your idea, and it can increase trust by making you seem more intellectually honest.

Start with the opposing point of view. The best way to get skeptical people to listen is to begin by telling them something they already agree with; you’ll have their attention and even a modicum of respect.

Express your initial reluctance to think this way. “I found it hard to believe at first, but when I learned more about it…” It will signal that you were once one of them, and make them curious about what changed your mind.

Avoid “hot” words. Certain words trigger unhelpful emotions, which is one reason that euphemisms—despite their potential for misunderstanding—can help. For example, I make a living teaching rhetoric to businesspeople, but I rarely use the word because unfortunately it has come to mean “manipulation”.

In summary, good communicators tend to have an adequate intuitive feel for just how much confidence to put into their speech. But for especially important or challenging conversations, it pays to choose your words wisely. You may not remember the specific situations described in this post, but as long as you make a sincere effort to think outside-in, and practice a little self-awareness, I’m confident that you will become a much more effective communicator.

See also: How Much Confidence is Enough? When to Dial It Down

[1] Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, p. 65.

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