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The Kindred Letters: How to be kind, warm – and respected

Published about 1 year ago • 8 min read

Dear Reader,

The power of "powerless communication"

Last week, I wrote to you about the societal pressure to be an “alpha” type (warrior/queen bee), the fear of being a “beta” (wimp/wallflower), and how to transcend this unhelpful dichotomy – by adopting a mindset of grace.

Grace means different things to different people. As I wrote, I’m using it to mean the state of mind where you try to show other people (and yourself) kindness, without asking questions of status, or of whether or not they (or you) “deserve” it.

This topic resonated with so many of you. One person wrote me to say that he’s been struggling with alpha-beta pressures his whole life. Another wrote about how much freedom there is in this idea of grace: “We don’t need to perform or climb the ladder or do whatever…we just need to BE.”

But how can we apply this mindset in the so-called “real world” – a business meeting, a difficult conversation? How to be kind and merciful, without being disrespected or trampled upon? We need communication styles that actually work, even in situations where grace doesn’t seem to be on the menu.

These are questions that I’ll keep returning to, in these Kindred Letters. For today, I want to talk about a communication style that organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls “the power of powerless communication.”

According to Grant, people who pose questions instead of answers, admit their shortcomings, and use tentative instead of assertive speech are some of the world’s most powerful communicators.

People who use these “powerless” communication styles fall into two categories, he says in his book, Give and Take. Some are doormats. But just as many are success stories. And there are crucial differences between these two groups.

It boils down to this insight: When people think you’re trying to influence or dominate them, they put their guard up. But when they feel you’re genuinely trying to help them, to muse your way to the right answer, or to be honest about your own imperfections, they open up to you. They hear what you have to say.

In small group decision-making, suggestions prefaced with qualifiers such as “this might be a good way to go” have been found to be accepted more often than forthright statements such as “let’s do it this way.”

And among salespeople, "powerless" communicators bring in 68% more revenue than “takers”—in large part because they ask more and better questions, and listen to the answers. Instead of coming on strong, they find out about the hopes and fears of their prospective buyers. They’re motivated not only by making the sale, but by satisfying their prospects’ needs. Buyers feel the difference.

If this framework intrigues you, here are a few specific tips:

  1. When you communicate with someone, ask yourself two important questions:

    What do you have to learn from the person you’re talking to? (This will make you curious, and cause you to direct sincere interest towards them.)

    and

    How can you help this person? (This will lead you to express sincere warmth, and also to divert attention from any self-critical voices in your head.)
  2. Pay attention to your insides. We humans are primed to instantly read each other’s body language, facial expressions, tone and pace of speech, etc. So, whatever you feel inside has a way of expressing itself. If you feel kind, calm, and open, people will know it. Adjusting your intentions will take you much farther than obsessing about outer self-presentation.

    In fact, one Kindred Letters reader wrote in with a quote from animal behaviorist Richard McIntyre about the true meaning of an alpha wolf: “The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf is quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance…You lead by example. You’re very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect.”
  3. Frame your opinions as suggestions. “I wonder if it would work to do it this way.” Give people space to disagree with you.
  4. Respond to aggression with humor or a boundary. When the famously unassuming Lincoln was called two-faced during a debate, he said: “Two faced? If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?” You don’t need the wittiest comeback in the world. The attitude of calm humor is what counts. Of course, this takes a certain level of composure. Another strategy is to calmly end the discussion, letting the person know that you’ll be ready to resume when they’re in a more respectful frame of mind.
  5. ***Start with competence.*** The social psychologist Amy Cuddy talks about how people instantly size each other up by two measures: warmth, and competence. They want to know: Will this person treat me well? And, equally crucially: can I rely on this person’s ability to get things done?


I hope this was helpful – and would love to hear your thoughts on all this! (I read the vast majority of your e-mail replies, and do my best to answer some of them.)

You may also want to check out my books and courses (info below), all of which deal deeply with these questions.

Love,

Susan

P.S. Do you know someone who loves quiet, depth, and beauty? If so, please forward this Kindred Letters newsletter! It's meant for them!

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Want more like this? You might love my books and courses.


Quiet at Work Course

I'm excited to share my SMS course designed to empower you at work (at home or in the office): as an employee, as a colleague, and as a leader. Every morning for 30 days, through a combination of exercises, strategies, and audio teachings from me, all of which I’ll send directly to your phone, you’ll get the tools you need to communicate, to network, and to lead as an introvert – without having to pretend to be someone else. Instead, you’ll learn to tap the unique and powerful gifts you already have. Would you like to join me? If so, you can sign up below (and choose your own start date)!




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For those who've signed up for my interactive SMS course (audio and written texts from me, delivered straight to your phone--see below for more info!) I hope you're loving it so far! Here's what some of you have had to say:

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"Susan's course transformed my mindset to one of total acceptance of the world as it is: a beautiful combination of dark and light."

The course is the perfect companion to the Bittersweet book, which was named a Best Book of 2022 by Amazon and Audible!

The course is designed to help you turn pain into creativity or healing, and to incorporate more joy and beauty into your daily life. The best part? It’s delivered straight to your phone, via text message or WhatsApp. You’ll get audio and written texts from me: my voice in your ear, my words on your screen, every morning for thirty days. Join me for 30 days of exploration, through audio lessons, guided meditations, reflections on art and music: all curated and designed to help you unlock the transformative power of bittersweetness.



The purpose of my work is to help you to make changes in and to better understand your life, through supportive guidance. The information I offer is for educational purposes only, and is based on my life and work experience as a writer, researcher, and speaker. By participating in my talks or consulting sessions, joining my courses and podcasts, or reading my books, newsletters or other writings, you acknowledge that I am not a licensed psychologist, medical doctor or mental health care professional, and that my services don’t constitute medical or psychological advice; they also don’t replace the advice offered by these professionals! Thank you so much for being here, and I wish you all good things.

The Kindred Letters: Join 525K Subscribers

by #1 NY Times bestselling author Susan Cain

For introverts, and all kindred spirits who prefer quiet to loud, depth to superficiality, and sensitivity to cool.

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