The power of powerless communication in selling

The power of powerless communication in selling

In his bestselling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, organisational psychologist Professor Adam Grant highlights the differences between “givers”, “takers” and “matchers” and shatters our assumptions about what it takes to be successful in business and in life.

As someone who has been studying and researching salespeople and sales leaders for more than 25 years, I am fascinated by Grant’s book. I have found it both illuminating and validating.

As many of you who read my posts regularly will know, I stand by the edict that effective selling is about the fair exchange of value where both the buyer and seller benefit. Being an effective salesperson is about being trusted first and foremost and being liked second. I have long endorsed that selling is about helping people achieve things that are important to them; that selling is about creating opportunities and bringing new ideas and insights to people; it’s about helping them make more informed decisions and building honourable relationships based on real value. And yes, selling can be tough in that the constant pursuit of new business with new and/or existing clients is ever present; however, how we approach selling is critical to how fulfilling we find our careers and how effectively we build viable healthy client relationships.

That is why I wanted to share with you some of Adam Grant’s findings from his book. There are so many things I could highlight that are relevant to us as salespeople, but I felt that the chapter titled ‘The Power of Powerless Communication’ would be the best place to start.

In it, Grant challenges the traditional assumptions about the importance of assertiveness and projecting confidence as a way of building prestige and gaining influence over others. As has long been touted by those ‘in the know’ when pitching for business or presenting ideas you should be forceful, confident, show no signs of weakness and so on. However, the research shows that givers adopt a different approach, which is more likely to help you win more business with more clients more often. Interesting.

As Grant says: “Givers value the perspective and interest of others, givers are more inclined towards asking questions than offering answers, talking tentatively than boldly, admitting their weaknesses than displaying their strengths, and seeking advice than imposing their views on others.”

Grant highlights the value of vulnerability, the importance of being yourself; being more approachable, more accessible, more human, more fallible. He says that expressing vulnerability in ways that are unrelated to competence may help build our prestige.

However, there’s more to it.

Grant says that, “To effectively influence people, we need to convert the respect that we earn into a reason for our audiences to change their attitudes and behaviours. Nowhere is this clearer than in sales, where the entire job depends on getting people to buy.”

As we know, salespeople have often been stereotyped as manipulative or even deceitful. Just ask anyone in the street what they think of salespeople and you will be sure to get many more derogative statements than positive ones. Yet Grant’s research shows that the most successful salespeople are those who show interest in others and care about helping others. They do this by being vulnerable and asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers of their clients and prospects.

As highlighted in the book:

…asking questions opened the door for customers to experience what the psychologist James Pennebaker calls the joy of talking… This isn’t surprising; people love to talk about themselves… Logically learning about the people around you should depend on listening. The less you talk, the more you should discover about the group.

Takers think that by talking and dominating the discussion they learn more about the people they are communicating with. However, the opposite is true.

It’s the givers, by virtue of their interest in getting to know us, who ask us the questions that enable us to experience the joy of learning from ourselves. And by giving us the answer, givers are actually learning about us and from us, which helps them figure out how to sell things we already value.

At Barrett, we always say ‘Questions deliver answers’. And as what is highlighted in the above paragraph, questions deliver answers to both the questioner and the giver of answers.

Asking questions is a form of powerless communication that givers adopt naturally. Asking people what they want instead of telling them what you want them to hear is one of the keys to successful selling. Instead of leading with an assertive pitch, every person who has ever been on one of our sales training programs will tell you, we ask you to lead with questions. Not leading questions, your honour, but questions that convey a desire to help people, and not take advantage of them.

Seeking advice is another form of powerless communication.

Grant writes: “Appearing vulnerable doesn’t bother givers, who worry far less about protecting their egos and projecting certainty. When givers ask for advice, it’s because they’re genuinely interested in learning from others… Advice seeking has four benefits: learning, perspective taking, commitment, and flattery.”

Advice seeking can also encourage others to consider and take our perspective because, in giving advice, they must look at the problem from our perspective too.  When asking advice we also show them respect and enhance their prestige. But as Grant points out, advice seeking only works if it is genuine.

In fact, being vulnerable, asking questions, talking tentatively and seeking advice only works if you are genuine. As Grant goes on to say, “Powerless communication works for givers because they establish a sincere intent to act in the best interest of others.”  

Effective selling, in our complex world, is far more effective if we adopt powerless communication as a foundation to our sales approach.

As Daniel Pink’s outstanding book, Drive, illuminated the science of motivation – dispelling long-held myths about motivation, instead highlighting the importance of autonomy, mastery and purpose as the keys to what drives us, Adam Grant has revealed a more meaningful, sustainable and effective pathway to success and prosperity that can transform individuals, organisations, and communities for the better.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is founder and CEO of and and has written 21 e-books and 500+ articles on the world of 21st century selling.

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