Expressing power politely


Have you ever felt undermined, acutely aware of the delicate balance of power in conversation as it shifts? Have you felt puzzled, locked out, or just unable to exert the influence that by rights, you feel you should have? And have you asked yourself, “Is it me? Am I being too soft? Too indirect? Not assertive enough? Something else that I can never quite put my finger on?”

You are not alone.

The top topic of concern for the (women) participants of the “Dynamics of Difference” research is a very particular puzzle about expressing authority. Many of the research stories tell of a complex and uneasy relationship with power. Surprisingly for a group dynamic, powerful women, the topic of powerlessness sits menacingly at the back of the room.

But power is not something we “have”, it is something we “do” – and it is a two-way street. We do power in relationship and in conversation with other people. Can insights from Linguistics help reframe our experience? Can it help us step more smoothly into our power?

Expressing your power and feeling powerless are not “good and bad” opposites of doing leadership – they are different aspects of the same interactional moments. These are the smallest of conversational moves, the finest of calibrations.

Take Elizabeth, “thirty-something” external relations manager for the marketing arm of a big multi-national, who is puzzled and troubled by an uncomfortable relationship with one of her direct reports. Lucy is an experienced woman in her fifties on (fairly permanent) loan from another part of the company and from a different cultural background, but as far as Elizabeth is concerned, this doesn’t explain why she contemptuously sidesteps her every request, no matter how directly or firmly she makes it.

Elizabeth says things like, “Thanks for the report, Lucy. It mostly covers the bases, but you might like to take another look at this section on regulatory powers.”

Lucy rarely responds, and when she does it is only to explain why her approach is fine – in effect to resist the suggestion, which as far as Elizabeth is concerned, is less of a suggestion and more of a polite directive. What is going on here?

There is certainly no shortage of popular explanations keen to point out the need for women managers to be assertive, direct (masculine?), and to remove the supposedly tentative, indirect (feminine?) ways of speaking. If we are constantly reminded that a gentler style of management is weak and ineffective, then it should come as no surprise that we see the “weakness” as our own.

Insights from Linguistics can let us choose to interpret such exchanges through the lens of respect. Linguistic theories of (im)politeness offer an explanation of the meaning of face in our everyday conversations. We all need to feel valued, respected and appreciated and we generally know how to make people feel this way too – to support each other’s positive face needs.

One common framework for adding linguistic detail to theories of politeness and impoliteness is the somewhat unfortunately named “negative face”. This is not about making people feel bad, it is about giving others enough room and respect so they do not feel imposed upon, constrained, trapped.

So which language strategies allow people to protect this “space” aspect of being polite? Two of the most common are hedging and apologising. Hedging is all about sounding less certain than you really are so that your interlocutor gets plenty of wriggle room and can disagree, or turn you down without either of you loosing face.

Another is apologising – the way people ease into a request by apologising for making it. But by saying you are “sorry”, you are not expressing regret, you are showing your respect for another person’s right to refuse you. So when you hear yourself saying something like, “I’m sorry, could I possibly have a word with you?” you are not being weak, ineffective and powerless, you are being hyper-polite.

What you are actually saying is, “I apologise in advance if what I am about to ask you puts you in a corner – it is not my intention to do this. I would like to talk to you but I am making this request in such a way as to make it easy for you to refuse, and if you do, it will also serve to make sure I don’t look too silly.”

It is shorthand respect.

Where does this leave Elizabeth? It leaves her with a choice. She can interpret her experience through the lens of respect rather than power. Lucy is older, more experienced and in most cultures therefore deserving of respect. Whether on this occasion Elizabeth is showing too much respect, is a matter for her. Only she can judge the circumstances, the relationship and her goals – but if she wants to she can calibrate her level of respect and shift it ever so slightly, “Thank you for the report, Lucy. It mostly covers the bases but I [would like/need/want] you to take another look at the section on regulatory powers.”

Saying something in so slightly different a way may seem such a small thing; but shifting the balance of power in a moment requires the finest hairsbreadth of movements. If your aim of being polite is undermining your authority, step back into your power by turning your politeness down a notch – it could be that this person, this business or even this culture works to slightly different scale.

It is about what you do in this conversation in this micro-moment, and not about who or what you are – and leadership never gave anyone the right to be rude.