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Rare is it for a day to go by without our having to communicate. We even have a special term for people who choose not to participate: hermits. Dialogue in our day-to-day lives creates the difference between misery and defeat, on the one hand, and success and satisfaction, on the other. The following guidelines will help you communicate what you intend in committee meetings, hallway briefings on the state of a project, explanations of your expense account, trade-show-floor exchanges, or dinner with your boss and spouse.

Tip 1. Recognize that Those in Less Powerful Positions Want to Win Your Goodwill; Interpret Their Words and Behavior Accordingly.

If you’re the boss, you’re going to get more attention to your preferences, quicker responses to your requests, and overt approval of your ideas. Don’t, however, jump to the conclusion that all this happens because you’re necessarily an excellent communicator, that your requests have more merit than those of others, or that your ideas are necessarily better. If you want honest feedback in your position of power, you’ll have to work hard for it.

Tip 2. As a Powerful Person if You Want to Build Rapport with Others, Remove the Status Symbols and Power Barriers.

Be aware of the kind of power you have with different groups. You have reward power if you can somehow positively influence what will happen to another person. You have coercive power if you can negatively influence another person’s future. You have positional power if by your position as boss or director or police officer or flight attendant you can force your will upon another. You have expert power over someone if you have knowledge that this person needs. You have referent power over people if you can influence them through your personality. Being aware of these power pockets forces you to take your interactions with certain people more seriously. They will.

If you want to minimize this power and relate to others on an equal footing—if you want an honest opinion that they may be reluctant to give—remove the status reminders. You may want to sit beside them, not across the desk from them. You may want to arrive at the cocktail party in your own car, not in a limo. You may want to take off your name badge and introduce yourself without the title. You may want to join them in the lounge rather than invite them to the country club.

Rapport building hinges on such small steps.

Tip 3. Assess Others’ Knowledge and Experiences Exactly.

If you assume that your listeners are more knowledgeable than they are, they may misunderstand your message, give up on trying to understand your explanations, or become frustrated or angry because they think you’re “putting on airs.”

A vice president at a large oil company attended a session where he’d asked the controller to explain to the first-line supervisors and managers how to complete a specific form justifying their annual budget requests. During the opening session, the controller illustrated the budget form using a figure of several million dollars for the purchase of equipment. At the break, the vice president wisely took the controller aside and asked her to lower the dollar amounts so as not to make the supervisors feel small because their responsibilities did not involve such large expenditures. That vice president picked up on an important subtlety.

On the other hand, you can err in the opposite direction. If you assume that your listeners know less than they actually do, they may feel that you are insulting their intelligence, boring them, or wasting their time on information they already know. Aim to meet them exactly at their knowledge and interest level. To do that, ask yourself five questions: What is their primary interest in this situation, event, or issue? How much do they already know, and from what source and perspective are they likely to have received information? How will they use the information for themselves? Why would they want to know this? What reaction will they have to the subject: Skepticism and doubt? Loss of face? Defensiveness? Support? These answers will help you reach them appropriately eye to eye.

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