“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”
If someone asked about the impression you made on them, would they describe you as a Gladstone or a Disraeli? We all know people like Gladstone who strive to be perceived as the smartest or most important person in the room. If that’s what you care about, stop reading now. But if you care more about getting things done through others, you should instead strive to make them feel ten feet tall.
I submit that this is especially important in today’s flatter organizations that proclaim that hierarchies are dead, that ideas are judged on their merits regardless of who brings them up. Especially when markers of status are less overt, we pay close—albeit unspoken—attention to subtle signals of our relative ranking. It’s hard-wired into our brains through millennia as social animals, and no amount of corporate feel-good fables will erase it. So, one of the best ways to grow your personal influence, paradoxically, is to give it up when communicating with others.
William James said, “the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” We all crave the comfortable glow of being respected and appreciated by others; when we get it, we feel good. So why not try to make others feel important? It costs us very little and means so much to them. Besides the fact that it’s the right thing to do, it makes practical sense to make others feel good about themselves when talking to us. Feeling good makes people more open-minded, more willing to listen and consider new ideas, and of course when people like us, they are much more likely to be persuaded.
The flip side of that argument, of course, is that when they feel put down, underappreciated or in a “one-down” position, they are less likely to go along. Even worse, the negative feeling can be far stronger than the corresponding positive. As in so many aspects of human nature, bad is stronger than good, and the threat to one’s self-importance is felt more intensely than the reward. According to David Rock, “the threat response is often triggered in social situations, and it tends to be more intense and longer-lasting than the reward response.” In fact, studies using functional MRIs have shown that the feeling of being excluded activates the same response in the brain as physical pain. And, when people feel threatened, their attention narrows and they are less open to new ideas. It can also feel very unfair, and people are quick to punish those they perceive as acting unfairly, even at a cost to themselves. , and Finally, if they associate you with pain, how likely are you to influence them?
Of course, most of us don’t go out of our way to alienate others, but we may do so inadvertently through inattention. And even when we don’t mess up, we may not take full advantage of ways to make the other person feel good about themselves. So it’s critical that you do everything you can to a) prevent negative feelings and b) foster positive feelings.
Prevent the bad – Don’t diminish their importance
Don’t ignore them. While this may sound obvious, it’s easy to make people feel ignored. How many times have you checked your phone while talking to someone? When meeting someone at a function, do you scan the room to see if there is someone more important to talk to? When giving a sales presentation, do you focus all your attention on the decision maker and overlook others in the room who may influence the final decision?
Don’t cross the line from confidence to cockiness, or assertiveness to aggression. This is especially important when making a first impression, because people tend to notice warmth before competence, in as little as a tenth of a sentence.
Be careful about giving advice. You may think that useful advice is a gift to the other person, but keep in mind that they “pay” for the gift by granting you superior status; in other words, at that moment, they have to at least symbolically put you in a dominant position.
Foster positive feelings – Put them on a pedestal
Get to know them before you meet them. Show that you consider them important enough to prepare for.
Be present. Especially in this distracted age, full attention is the highest compliment you can pay anyone. The great thing about being present is that it’s a gift that gives back: it makes them feel important and they see you as more charismatic, according Olivia Fox Cabane in her book, The Charisma Myth.
Let others talk, and listen actively: face them squarely, don’t interrupt, encourage them to talk, and respond appropriately.
Be more interested than interesting. I got this phrase from Mark Goulston’s excellent book, Just Listen. His advice is to treat a conversation not as a tennis match in which you want to return serve with a stronger point of your own, but as a detective game in which you earn points by learning as much as you can about the other person. Follow the 51+ rule: meet them more than halfway; be curious about them…
Make them feel like an expert. Everyone knows more than you about something; find out what it is and ask them about that. Solicit their advice, and pay attention to what they say. Even when challenging their thinking by delivering new information, you can say something like, “You’re the expert in your business; how would you see this idea applying to your operations?”
One last thought: I am not advocating servile sycophancy that insincerely tells the other person only what they want to hear. The crucial point is that you must genuinely strive to find in others that which sets them apart and makes them distinctive—otherwise it can backfire on you. But when it works, it’s like a magic see-saw that elevates both sides at once.
 Most people tend to have an intuitive sense of this, as illustrated in research by Alison Fragale, which found that emails to peers used more deferential language than even emails to superiors.
 See Compelling People, by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohutt, p. 12.
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.” 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.
 Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, p. 65.
I’ve just finished reading The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols. Nichols is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, and he is deeply concerned about the dumbing-down of our national discourse, in which the loudest and most simplistic opinions seem to carry far more weight than the carefully nuanced opinions of experts.
As a nation of rugged individualists who believe we’re all created equal, we Americans have always had a healthy skepticism about experts, which was noted as early as 1835 by Alexis de Toqueville almost 200 years ago. I remember one of my high school teachers defining an expert as “someone who learns more and more about less and less, until finally he knows everything about nothing.”
And there have been good reasons for that skepticism. First, expert mistakes have certainly cost us, with Exhibit 1 being the foreign policy elites who have gotten us into trouble from Vietnam to Iraq and many places in between. It’s also hard to trust experts when finding experts who contradict each other is as easy as switching channels, and experts who sell their opinion to the highest bidder or overstep their knowledge to gain attention unfortunately get more attention than those who are more cautious.
But focusing on the mistakes (or other shortcomings) of experts ignores their far more important contributions to our lives. The experts who got it wrong with the Challenger also got us to the moon; the chemists who gave us thalidomide also have saved or improved millions of lives with other drugs; and to give the foreign policy establishment their due, they also helped build the postwar world order that has prevented a war between major powers for over 70 years and has contributed to an unprecedented expansion of prosperity.
When you ignore the contributions of experts and focus only on their failings, you stand to lose far more than you gain, like burning down your house to kill the mouse you saw in your kitchen. So it’s smart to take a careful and informed approach to assessing expert advice. As the saying goes, “if you think an expert is expensive, try hiring an amateur.”
But that’s exactly the problem we’re running into today—we’re paying far more attention to the loud and simplistic amateurs than we should. The backlash against established expertise the problem we’re running into is turning (or already has, most likely) healthy skepticism not only into unhealthy skepticism and cynicism but into aggressive and willful ignorance. We value confidence far more than credentials, which is why we elected a man who says he is the only one who can fix things.
The Internet was supposed to lift us all up, by putting the accumulated knowledge of the world at our fingertips. Instead, according to Nichols it has made us dumber, and I agree with him. Because anyone with a connection can create a slick website and reach the whole world with their opinions, the overwhelming quantity of crap tends to bury the quality. Sturgeon’s Law, which says 90% of everything is crap, is woefully deficient in describing the internet. For most people using it to do “research”, the internet is simply a powerful engine for confirmation bias. As if that’s not enough, Nichols also describes the impact of a higher education system that has misguidedly turned students into “customers”, and the proliferation of talk radio and cable TV stations that cater to every conceivable taste and perspective, so that no one ever has to run the risk of running into an uncomfortable fact.
After I put down the book, I jotted down some notes to try to answer the title question of this blog. (Since I’ve covered some aspects of this problem previously in my blog, what follows combines some of the ideas from The Death of Expertise and some of my previous thinking, and it’s impossible to separate the two. As a rule of thumb, if it sounds smart, credit Nichols.)
What do the experts owe us?
- Don’t overstate your case. Nichols is slightly guilty of this, starting with his title. Death is a pretty strong word, and the word campaign carries a slight whiff of conspiracy theory to it. It’s definitely a trend that many have exploited, but no one is guiding it.
- Stick to what you know. Linus Pauling deservedly won two Nobel prizes, but tarnished his reputation when he touted Vitamin C as a panacea (not to mention dabbling in eugenics).
- Be a foxy hedgehog. From a strong base of expert knowledge, become curious about the rest of the world and get comfortable with uncertainty and disagreement.
- Separate fact from opinions. Be clear in your own mind first, and then explicit about the difference in your public statements.
- Separate analysis from predictions. As Philip Tetlock has shown us, the average expert is just slightly more accurate than a drunk monkey throwing darts when it comes to making predictions.
- Be professional. Professionalism includes the above admonitions plus an obligation to the greater good—of your clients and even sometimes the general public.
What do we owe the experts?
- Look for signs that the expert you’re reading is following the rules above.
- Recognize that when it comes to expertise we are not all created equal. Don’t think that a half hour spent perusing Google returns gives you the right to argue with someone who has devoted their professional life to the topic.
- If you still feel the need to argue with experts (for example, I take issue with some of the ideas that our City’s traffic experts are trying to sell to the public), at least make a serious effort to learn the fundamentals of the topic first.
- Be careful what you put in your mind. If it’s true that you are what you eat, it’s even more true that you are what you read.
- Become a more critical thinker and learn how to identify quality. Here’s a few recommendations for further reading that will better equip you for the task:
o When Can You Trust the Experts? by Daniel Willingham
o Superforecasting, or Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock
o For detecting business and management BS: The Halo Effect…and Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers, by Phil Rosenzweig, and Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer
o Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.
o Curious, by Ian Leslie.
I heartily recommend this book, but the irony of a book about the death of expertise is that those who most need to read it are the least likely to.
In my last blog post, I wrote about the foundations of confident communication, the factors that prop up the confidence you feel coming into the presentation or conversation. Adding to whatever natural confidence you possess, if you‘ve done the work to have high earned confidence and given yourself an additional boost with some priming techniques, that inner confidence will spill out in your displayed confidence, like the light and sound from a party house on a darkened block.
A lot of that confidence will genuinely display itself in your body language: you will be more open, stand a bit taller, and face people squarely with a smile. Even if you’re still nervous, you can to some extent “fake it “til you make it” by consciously trying to show more than you feel.
And yet, despite all your efforts, there is still one more factor to consider, which in my experience is most often overlooked: your actual language. That’s because the human mind is exquisitely tuned to detect cues that indicate strength (and warmth). We’re no different than the animals we see on nature shows that use body language displays to indicate strength and status, but unlike them we also have spoken language which contains subtler but no less important cues.
Your actual language—the words you choose and the style and structure of your speech patterns—can be hugely important in determining how confident others perceive you to be.
Verbal confidence (or lack thereof) comes through in three ways: directness, clarity and power leaks.
Direct language is confident language. Direct = confident. It shows you have enough faith in your own idea that you want to show the world your idea in all its naked reality, without dressing it up in little detours or decorations. Get right to the point, don’t mitigate your message. “Turn up the heat” is far more direct and confident than “is anyone else cold?”
Winston Churchill, who probably did not have an unconfident bone in his body, said: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”
The perception of your confidence is also affected by the clarity of your message, because when people aren’t sure what you mean they may think that you’re either unsure yourself or trying to hide something. Clarity depends heavily on the words you choose. Here are three ways to
- Weasel words, which Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, calls adjectives that seem to add power but actually weaken your speech, such as very, tends to, many. Try to give them a number, or leave them out.
- Euphemisms mean well but we’re so afraid to offend anyone nowadays that we contort ourselves into knots trying to figure out how not to say something, such as United’s assertion that the passenger they beat up was “re-accommodated”. Think what you would say is someone asks, “What exactly do you mean by that?”, and start with that.
- Abstraction is not necessarily a bad thing, because it’s often the only way to describe complex ideas. But unless you prop them up with examples that listeners can picture in their minds, it can be like trying to grasp a heavy object without a handle, not impossible but harder than it needs to be. When you can easily spout numbers, facts and names, it adds power and confidence to your communication.
Despite your best efforts to be direct and clear you may still suffer from what I call power leaks. These include:
- hedges, such as, “I think that, maybe…”
- hesitations, “such as kind of, sort of…”
- filler words, “um, you know, like…”
- tag questions, “don’t you think?”
Unless you pay close attention to your own speech patterns, you may not even be aware that you have power leaks. Ask a trusted friend or associate to tell you if they notice them, and then focus on breaking the habit.
In sum, if you want to be perceived as a powerful and confident communicator, be direct, be clear, and cut out the wimpy power leaks.
 I was once told by a client that I could not use the term “flip chart” because it might be offensive to Filipinos!