From the time you could walk, talk, and defend yourself against the bully in the schoolyard you were told to never show weakness or others would take advantage of you.
Most people carry that mantra from grade school through high school on to college and the workplace, feeling confident that " the best defense is a good offense."
But that 's not so, says Geoffrey Tumlin, author of the new book, Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life.
Tumlin says being what some would call a "wimp" is often an effective response. And in the right circumstances, it can even be a way to get ahead.
"Weakness can be a very effective communication tool," says Tumlin. "In many scenarios, allowing the other party to maintain what appears to be 'the upper hand' can help you successfully navigate volatile situations, protect important relationships, and get you what you want personally and professionally."
So why do we feel it's okay-even smart-to maintain a forceful presence? Some of it might be the vestige of our caveman past, but Tumlin believes it's also a consequence of the digital communication revolution. We've gotten in the habit of impulsive, expedient, and self-expressive communication. We can chat, tweet, text, and email to our hearts' content. And because it's all so quick and easy, we've come to believe that it's our right, as citizens of the digital age, to say what we want, when we want.
"One consequence of this mistaken belief is that we often fight back too quickly and too forcefully whenever we're annoyed," Tumlin says. "But impulsive and unfiltered communication-whether it happens face-to-face or digitally-often costs us dearly. Because we aren't willing to be seen as wimps, conflicts escalate and relationships deteriorate. We would do much better to hold our tongues, control our emotions, and focus on long-term goals instead of on short-term gratification."
Following are some of Tumlin's suggests for getting ahead through that method:
Respond with weakness. We all too often use more force than we need to accomplish our objectives. We yell when a measured response would work better, send a blistering e-mail when a more restrained reply would suffice, or issue an ultimatum when a firm but gentle statement of convictions would do. Conflicts that start or escalate with excessive force frequently cause a destructive cycle-attack, retaliation, escalated attack, and escalated retaliation, etc. No matter how justified you may feel the bottom line is that using excessive force isn't usually a winning strategy.
"...Bring a stick to a knife fight," he says. "No, it's not always easy when emotions are running high, but a 'weak' response can often stabilize a harsh conversation and prevent damage to the underlying relationship. Try to stay serious and focused and keep the conversation as brief as possible. Keep your words calm, controlled, and even boring-don't add any new emotional material."
Back down from challenges. In our achievement-oriented society, backing down from a verbal challenge can be the equivalent of not accepting a triple-dog-dare on the playground. But that's exactly what smart communicators do. They know that our quick, cheap, and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary chatter, and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. Smart communicators are willing to let some problems go unsolved so that they can focus on those that are truly important.
"Delay is your default category," he adds. "Many issues don't need your active intervention, and others may disappear completely or resolve themselves without your participation. Finally, some issues reflect highly emotional, incredibly complicated, and other volatile feelings that reside deep inside the other person. Avoid them unless they are impairing the accomplishment of critical work."
Let difficult people win. Whether they're controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person tend to spark frequent confrontations-even though we're unlikely to influence these people...It's time to quit trying, insists Tumlin.
"At the end of a conversation, the difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position," he points out. "Only a commitment to let go of your desire to 'win' by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. When you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It's really all you can do."
Swallow your pride and say you're sorry. Apologizing to another person isn't easy, even when you know you're in the wrong. It's even tougher when you think that the other person is being unreasonable. And, of course, it doesn't help that certain people view apologies as a sign of weakness. Yet Tumlin believes you should apologize anyway.
Ignore insults. When somebody offends you, your inner Neanderthal rushes to the front of your brain, urging you to club your foe over the head and show the other person that you won't allow yourself to be treated that way. But guess what? Your inner Neanderthal isn't known for restraint, civility, or strategic thinking. Sure, it might feel good to act on your emotions and indulge your impulses, but responding aggressively to insults can also result in a lot of long-term damage.
By focusing on what you want to accomplish instead of what you want to say, your goal-and the underlying relationship-can survive for another conversation."
Stop constantly defending your beliefs. Standing up for your convictions has been the American way since the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. And yes, you should speak up when you feel your own or someone else's well being is being threatened. But even though others might label you a wimp for keeping your mouth shut, you don't have to rise to every challenge. Even though your brother-in-law's political rants on Facebook make your blood boil, you don't have to comment on why you disagree with each and every post.
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