Communicating Power

— Projecting power as we speak

Introduction edit

The style of our communication establishes a power relationship.

We use several distinct styles of spoken communication and each one communicates the power stance of the relationship along with the semantics of the message.[1] In every communication there are two messages, one about the semantics of the discussion, the other about the relationship of the participants.

Objectives edit

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The objectives of this course are to help you:

  • Identify various styles of communication,
  • Identify the power stance of communications you are participating in,
  • Determine if the power stance being used is helpful,
  • Choose your responses throughout communications sessions,
  • Project your agency and power,
  • Choose the semantics and power relationship you wish to communicate.

This course is part of the Emotional Competency curriculum. This material has been adapted from the page on Tone of Communication, with permission of the author.

If you wish to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the discussion page.

Communications Styles edit

The table below distinguishes between dialogue, discussion, debate, delegation, dogma and other terms we use to describe spoken communications. Peers are equals and they collaborate using dialogue. It is the only symmetrical form of communication. The other forms establish or reinforce asymmetrical, power-based relationships.

Term Definition Power Stance Example
Dialogue A conversation between two or more people. An exchange of ideas or opinions. Root: Dia Logus, “Through Words” Dialogue requires both talk and silence to create an interweaving of ideas. We are peers, collaborating to solve a problem we are facing together. Let’s work together to discover an understanding. Your views are essential to solving the problem. Completely open to new ideas — Cooperation. Typical of the best scientific inquiry and collaboration.“What is the best design for our new product?”
Discussion Consideration of a subject by a group. Talk or writing in which the pros and cons of a subject are considered. Root: same as Percussion, “ping pong,” back and forth, offense and defense. I am scoring points against your arguments. Your point of view will eventually come around. Somewhat open to new ideas — Consideration A typical conversation that begins by expressing a point of view or suggesting a solution, rather than stating a problem or need.

“May I bounce my new design off of you?”

Debate To engage in argument by discussing opposing points. Root: from debatre, to fight, contend, to beat down. I am right, you are wrong, your way of thinking is incorrect, the facts you present are incorrect. Your point of view is wrong. You need to submit to my better judgment. Not open to new ideas — Contention. Presidential debates: “I am clearly the best candidate.” “No, I am clearly the best candidate.”

Development: “This is the best design.” Marketing: “We can't afford to wait so long for you to build it.”

Defend To ward off an attack. Root: from défendere to ward off. Notice if the defense is primarily evidence based or power based. An evidence based defense endorses the facts, a power based one doubts the facts. The earth is estimated to be approximately 4 billion years old based on the following evidence gathered by geologist, paleontologists, and astronomers: . . .
Distraction Diverting attention. Root: Latin distrahere, distract-, to pull away I don't care to respond to you and you don't have the power to make me respond. Bloviation, obfuscation, restating the question, changing the subject . . .
Dismissal To discard or reject. Root: dis- + mittere, to send. You are not worth engaging in any further discussion. — Contempt. How dare you ask.

If you don't even know that, I can't help you.

Delegation To assign work and responsibility to someone else. Root: from delegatus, to appoint. I have power and you don’t. What I want and need are important, your needs are not. Why don’t you just keep quiet or do it yourself — Control. “I think it would be great if we had a department picnic.”

“Great idea, why don’t you plan it. ”Development: “How do you expect us to meet that deadline?” Management: That's what I hired you to figure out.”

Disingenuous Not straightforward or candid; insincere or calculating. Not genuine. You are not worth communicating with honestly and genuinely. . . and we both know there is nothing you can do about it. The recorded message that repeats “Your call is important to us” as you are kept on hold endlessly.
Dialectic Tension and synthesis of opposites. Root: from Latin dialectica, logic, from Greek dialektikē, the art of debate Done best when wise, respectful, and vigorous peers adopt the stance of: my viewpoint and logic is as valid as yours. This can be very useful to stimulate thinking and explore the creative tension of naturally occurring conflicts, such as between speed and accuracy or the aspirations of hope and the stubbornness of evidence.
Decree An authoritative order having the force of law. Root: from dēcernere, to decide. I have chosen to exercise my positional power and make this final decision. Court judgments or executive decisions and pronouncements.
Diatribe A bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism Root: from Greek diatribē, pastime, lecture, from diatrībein, to consume, wear away I know the Truth and I will lecture you forcefully, self-righteously, and angrily until you capitulate or understand.
Dogma An authoritative principle, belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to be absolute truth. Root: dogma, that which one thinks true, a decree I have the power, you do not. This is Truth. Do this. Do not debate or discuss. Comply or else. There is no other point of view. Completely closed to new ideas — Conformance, submission. “The earth is the center of the universe.”

“We've always done it this way.”

Many other incomplete forms of communication fail to achieve authentic expression.

In addition to the power stance described above for each mode of communication, our spoken and non-verbal communications often contain many other messages that are transmitted on an emotional level rather than semantically.

Expertise and Authority edit

Authorities are rarely experts.

An expert is someone who has a prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a particular field. Experts are often widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely in a particular domain is recognized by peers or the public. This may be the plumber, an automobile mechanic, physician, lawyer, engineer, author, researcher, juggler, athlete, researcher, gourmet, and many others. Note that expertise is domain specific. A skillful juggler is an expert on juggling but is unlikely to have any special expertise in other fields. Do not mistake a person who is famous and skillful in one area, such as a famous actor or athlete, for an expert in some domain outside the field they became expert in.

In short, an expert is someone who knows more about some topic than you do.

An authority is someone who granted the right to exercise power. This may be a team leader, committee chair, sports team coach, your boss within some organization, classroom teachers, elders, clergy, government officials, police officers, referees, judges, and many others. Authority is often based on position in some organizational hierarchy.

It is helpful to listen carefully and take advice from experts. It is often unjustified, and in fact a recognized fallacy to value the opinion of an authority over that of an expert.

Be wary of an authority who is adopting a power stance when communicating on a topic they are not expert in. Be especially careful to evaluate the evidence provided when listening to an authority who may not be an expert.

Assignment edit

  1. Choose a communications event to observe closely.
  2. Notice the communication style being used. Identify that style from the table above.
  3. Describe the power stance used during the communication.
  4. Is the speaker an expert on the topic? How do you know?
  5. Is the speaker an authority because they have been granted positional power? Does the speaker exercise their authority wisely?
  6. If an authority is speaking and an expert expresses disagreement, how is the conflict resolved?
  7. Does the power stance being used establish a justified power relationship between the communicating parties?

Responding edit

We can respond to a communication with any of these styles: directly, responsively, and with confidence; directly, with hesitancy or doubt; directly, admitting we don't know; skeptically; gullibly; indirectly; with sarcasm; seriously, solemnly; with a joke; with an insult; by changing the subject; with an attack; by shaming, blaming, or humiliating the victim; condescendingly; kindly; cruelly; helpfully; needy; carefully; thoughtfully; curiously; humbly; arrogantly; carelessly; truthfully; dishonestly, disingenuously, or insincerely; with a dismissal; patiently; impatiently; quickly; slowly; with our full attention; distracted; by submitting to a demand; or by rebelling from a demand.

Each of the following response styles shifts the power stance and other dimensions of the relationship.

Request Forms Listening Modes Reply Forms
  • Statement; Provide Information
  • Inquiry; Request Information
  • Request action,
  • Demand action,
  • Exclaim emotion
  • Attentive or inattentive,
  • Patient or Impatient,
  • Interrupting or not,
  • Believing or disbelieving,
  • Interested or bored,
  • Understanding or baffled
  • Information response,
  • Question for clarification,
  • Question as a statement,
  • Non-responsive, defensive
  • compliance,
  • rebellion, defiance
  • Respectful or disrespectful
  • Sharing a new insight

Poison Phrases edit

Meryl Runion uses the term “Poison Phrases” to describe how we often antagonize people we communicate with while denying our personal responsibility. Recently she took an (unscientific) poll to identify the ten most offensive poison phrases.[2] They are: 1) Shut up, 2) It’s not my job, 3) What’s Your problem? 4) Whatever, 5) Bite me, 6) I’m just a clerk, 7) If you say so, 8) I couldn’t care less, 9) I don’t care, and 10) I’m done with you. These are transparent attempts to artificially inflate your status at the expense of the person you are offending. They are examples of bullying and humiliation.

Further Reading edit

Students interested in learning more communicating power may be interested in the following materials:

  • Berne, Eric (May 12, 1969). Games People Play. Vintage. pp. 192. ISBN 978-0394171340. 
  • Runion, Meryl (December 31, 2003). How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, & Get What You Want. McGraw-Hill Education. pp. 224. ISBN 978-0071424851. 

Notes edit

  1. This material is adapted from the website with permission from the author.
  2. Vote Now for the Most Disagreeable Poison Phrases, September 6, 2006, Meryl Runion.