What Exactly Are You Saying?

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “The Perils of Powerful Speech,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Death to modifiers! All hail the active verb. Be succinct.

Those are Strunk and White’s commandments for simple and direct writing. They also may be rules for establishing verbal power in negotiation—though not always, it turns out.

Linguistic studies have shown that hesitations (ums and ahs), tag questions (“That’s true, isn’t it?), hedges (kind of, sort of), disclaimers (“This may not be right, but . . .”), and intensifiers (really, very) affect how speakers are perceived. People who use them are judged less likely to be hired, promoted, and supported by superiors than those who don’t.

Even when the substance of speech is the same, its delivery can make someone seem either powerful or powerless. Yet a set of recent experiments by Alison Fragale of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School suggests that this effect depends on context.

Subjects in one experiment were told that they would engage in group decision-making exercises via email. For consistency’s sake, the return messages they received were generated by a cleverly programmed computer. One task was the classic subarctic survival game in which subjects had to choose what equipment to leave behind and what to save. To some subjects, the computer flatly said: “The flashlight should be rated higher….put it higher.” Of others, it asked: “Do you think the flashlight should maybe be rated higher?”

The subjects were asked to rate their teammates for potential leadership in a follow-up experiment. One group was told that the exercise would involve independent work, while a second group was told it would require collaboration.

Consistent with prior research, the “speaker” with the powerful style was favored to lead the independent project. But, in a twist, the “powerless” speaker was favored when the project was expected to require collaboration.

Fragale thus challenges conventional distinctions between the “language of success” and the “language of failure.” An assertive verbal style may enhance your perceived power in an arm’s-length negotiation, but in collaborative settings, modest speech may win you more support.

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