The Vulnerable Communicator

I’m always slightly foxed when I encounter some of the words which are bandied about to characterise ideal behaviour for business interaction – words like “consistent”, “authentic” and “assertive”. I often reflect that rather than liberating people to be effective, they seem to be imposing a norm for people to comply with without allowing for the reality of their lives as human beings with emotional complexity, including their vulnerability.

It is actually difficult sometimes to be simultaneously authentic and assertive.

It’s easy to see why assertive influence is lauded; it’s a socially acceptable version of dominance, which is about directing other people what to do. Apparently, this is how good team players should win each other over and, of course, how leaders should lead. This is seen as much better than indirect ways of getting other people to do what you want, such as flirting or weeping. Manipulation is seen as bad. It interests me that, in patriarchal societies, the means generally available to men are direct while those available to women are indirect. In our post-patriarchal (sort of) society, we are all now obliged to exhibit nice dominant behaviour, while we make negative value judgements about other approaches. This seems to me to be limiting for both men and women.

In my work, I’m concerned with helping people when they are presenting, or communicating in less formal settings, especially when the stakes are high and they might feel a degree of stress.

I’d propose a different approach based on awareness, choice, flexibility and changing one’s non-verbal signals. Moreover, I’d suggest that it is more practical to be technical and external rather than internally driven, which for some seems to be the only change legitimised as authentic.

There should be an approach available which allows people to be honest about their own vulnerability, when they chose to be, rather than to feel compelled to supress it at all costs. Ultimately, they should be free to explore a range of behaviours for enhancing their connection with others.


The story your body tells others

An article in this week’s (6th April, 2013) New Scientist magazine, ‘Lost In Translation’, busts a few popular myths about body language, such as crossed arms as a sure-fire indicator of defensiveness. It suggests that perhaps an accurate congruence between body language and internal thought is less important than what messages other people habitually interpret from certain postures and gestures: “What matters is what others think it is telling them.”

It then goes on to ponder: “Can it be faked?”

Well, I can attest that there is a group of professional practitioners who have been successfully faking it for millennia. They are called actors.

What actors do is watch those whom they tend to call ‘real people’ – i.e. non-actors – in everyday situations. They then rehearse and deliberately play behaviours that they have observed have a certain impact. Different actors have different methods to get the outcomes they want, ranging from internally driven Stanislavski methods to the more external, physical Commedia del arte tradition.

The New Scientist points to findings by Dana Carney at the University of California, Berkeley, that changing body language can in fact change physiology, siting the evidence of significant percentage increases or decreases in testosterone or cortisol depending on whether the subjects were holding “high” or “low” power poses. (Psychological Science, vol 21, p1463).

Again, actors over the ages would have been able to supply anecdotal evidence of this as a route into finding their way into a character. There is a kind of feedback from acting angry on the outside to feeling angry on the inside, for instance. The body influences the mind.

Carney, and the New Scientist, implicitly suggest that “high power” is desirable and low is to be avoided. In other words, let’s all be assertive all the time.

This tack belies the truth of how real communication happens between human beings. There are times when nothing resonates more than vulnerability and it can become a powerful conduit for a message.

In a TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy speaks about the transformative impact on her life of “power posing”, presumably similar in nature to that explored by Carney. What’s interesting, and perhaps ironic, is that her presentation is not all characterised by high power. At one point, she appears to be holding back tears while speaking fluently and movingly about her experience. It is not a “power pose” but her harnessed vulnerability which makes this such electric and memorable viewing. She is no less persuasive because of this, in fact, perhaps more so.


Harnessed vulnerability

To be vulnerable is to be human. Without an indication that someone has a degree of vulnerability, it’s difficult to warm to that person. The dropped pencil, the fluffed word, the admission that there’s an area in which you’re not an expert – all these factors paradoxically can enhance your standing. Enhance it, that is, as long as you don’t appear to be horrified at your own apparent loss of face. The moment when you lose an audience is not when you stumble over a percentage point but the moment after, when your whole demeanour collapses in apology. This inability to accept anything less than perfection from yourself is actually a bigger weakness than being relaxed about small flaws.

In my work with clients and students, I can see what a big challenge it is for many first to identify what physical signals they are sending, then to assess how these look to an audience, and finally to resist the impulse to keep doing things which they now understand undermine them. It takes practice.

If we could genuinely lose the mind-set of over-protecting ourselves against audiences and striving for an un-crackable shell of high status, it would be a huge bonus.


High and low status

As dramatists ancient and modern know well, there is nothing so compelling as watching a high-status player tumble from a great height. Whether this is the fictional Oedipus of Sophocles’s eponymous tragedy or the mesmerising TV viewing of Rupert Murdoch claiming to a public enquiry that: “This is the most humble day of my life”. Many observers reacted with glee and derision to the latter’s humbling; it was so long in coming that the sentiments could be barely be interpreted as sincere.

So, even leaders who commit successfully to projecting invulnerability over a long period of time eventually find this strategy has its short-comings.

Politicians are a tribe who suffer particularly from the desire to appear without flaws and gaff-free. It’s therefore interesting to note how one of the most popular current political figures in the UK is not someone who projects high status authority in all circumstances, but a character who happily exploits his slips into clown-like self-abasement to charm people, even those who may not necessarily share his values or agree with his policies. I’m a speaking, of course, of Boris Johnson. This well-received thank-you speech at the end of the 2012 Olympics is a great example. Another memorable moment was the zip-wire stall which Boris managed to present as endearing rather than humiliating.

Johnson’s daring lies in robbing detractors the chance to cut him down to size by owning his own vulnerability and selling it back to the crowd. What happens when you mismanage that is beautifully illustrated by Nick Clegg’s unwitting You Tube hit , when he gave others all the ammunition they needed.


Choosing your power

The single ingredient which enables public speakers and presenters to own their vulnerability is an ease with themselves. Quite simply, you need the courage and the technique to relax.

This is major element of the training and coaching work that I undertake with my clients. They’re often surprised at the impact of regulating their breathing on their own physiology and on the audience’s perception of them.

When you’re relaxed, you can connect deeply with your own message and with your audience. Then the unexpected can happen without damaging your essence. Athletes call it being in the zone. Then, you’ll have the right kind of invulnerability.

Power poses might be a valid starting point, but I’d argue it is a crude technique which only values one end of the spectrum. It might be more effective to consider what kind of rapport or impact would be more likely to win people over in a particular situation. A high, assertive stance is not always best.

Keith Johnson’s classic manual for actors, Impro, published in 1981, explored how all our lives are governed by the rules of status (or power), which have nothing to do with social standing, class or organisational hierarchy but everything to do with non-verbal signals. In an autobiographical section, he describes the impact made on him by a teacher at his school who earned the respect of his pupils through his expertise in adapting his status for the situation, rather than by relying exclusively on a high status pose to exert authority. Johnson suggested an actor’s ability to shift up and down along a spectrum could give him or her the possibility of being both compelling and credible in an endless variety of situations. Playing with status, or power, might be an effective tool for presenters and all kinds of ‘real people’ – as well as actors.

The best communicators exercise their choices judiciously and are not stuck in default mode. Whether they are deferring to others or leading from the front, whether they are baring their souls or sharing a joke against themselves, they are connecting with the message and the audience.

They are masters not just of assertiveness, but also of vulnerability and flexibility.