6 Ways to Get Ahead by Showing Weakness


Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

A colleague sends you a snarky email, so you type a cutting response right back. 

A Facebook “friend” insults your political beliefs in a post, so you write a scathing comment about their obvious cluelessness. 

A team member arrives late and unprepared for a meeting, so you berate him in front of the group for being inconsiderate. 

Aunt Betty belittles your career choices over Thanksgiving dinner, so you carve her up like the turkey, angrily countering her criticisms and throwing in a few insults for good measure.

At first glance, none of this seems unreasonable. After all, nobody likes to back down, give in, knuckle under, or swallow an insult. And showing weakness isn’t likely to get you anything but disrespect and marginalization…right?

Wrong. 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. 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 vestiges of our caveman past, but I believe 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. 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.

Let’s improve conversations, develop productive communication habits, and use our powerful digital devices not to fragment attention and dilute relationships, but to bring us closer to our higher-order aspirations. Here are six ways to get ahead by showing weakness:

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.

You should try to apply the least amount of interpersonal force and intensity necessary to accomplish your objective. In other words, bring a stick to a knife fight. 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.

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