Thursday, December 07, 2006

The power of powerless speech

A piece of research carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina has identified that some people respond more positively to leaders and managers who express doubt and hesitation in their language, than to those who sound confident and certain.

The research is reported in the BPS's weekly digest (subscribe here) and on their blog here. The researchers set up an experiment in which two transcripts of an employee making a phonecall were read by 54 partcipants, who had previously been shown one of two different versions of what the company valued: the need to work independently or the need to work co-operatively. The participants were then asked to rate the telephone transcripts in terms of the feelings they had towards each speakern. The crucial difference between the transcripts was that one version had been read in a hesitant way, with pauses, hedges and indirect structures, while the other had been read in a more confident and succinct fashion. The BPS story explains:
As you might expect, participants who read that the company valued people’s ability to work alone, were more likely to recommend Richard for a high status promotion if they’d read the telephone transcript in which he had spoken assertively and without hesitation. More surprisingly, among the participants who read that the company cherished cooperation among staff, those who read the transcript in which Richard spoke with doubt and hesitation were more likely to recommend him for promotion than were the participants who read the transcript in which he was assertive and confident. The explanation for this probably lies in the fact the participants who read the ‘hesitant’ transcript rated Richard as more likeable and tolerant than the participants who read the ‘confident’ transcript.

It was O'Barr and Atkins who first looked at the idea of "powerless language", making the point that hesitation and tentativeness were not exclusively features of female language,as Robin Lakoff had proposed, but were common to all people in situations where a power differential was apparent: defendants in court, police suspects, students being admonished by teachers etc.

This research seems to suggest that our responses to hesitation aren't quite as clear cut as some might say, and that good leadership & management skills can be inclusive and tentative, as well as assertive.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

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