Whether it’s in our workplaces or our relationships, we have been programmed to put our best foot forward. Offering others the sharpest version of ourselves is often an irresistible impulse. We tend to think that in order to be respected or seen as worth listening to, we need to project a perfectly polished image. We work hard to make sure people see us and our ideas as infallible. In my line of work, putting my best foot forward is a constant temptation. And yet, I’ve found that my greatest successes have been a result of the opposite.
The Power of Vulnerability
In his landmark book The Trust Factor, neuroeconomist Paul Zak explored the biological processes involved in establishing affinity in the minds of those who we wish to influence. After years studying what builds rapport between individuals, Zak discovered that the most important factor for building trust is our humanness. Being real, vulnerable, and even fallible results in the release of the hormone oxytocin – the neuromechanism humans have unconsciously used for centuries to determine who was safe enough to trust and work with.
Especially when we are attempting to persuade, influence or motivate another person, we tend to opt for a set of strategies that work against us. Impenetrable arguments, irrefutable evidence and unshakeable logic are usually our default tools for winning a debate or changing a mind. Things like doubt and uncertainty are quickly concealed as signs of weakness.
The ancient masters of persuasion would approach it differently. Before neuroscience and behavioral economics had studied it, vulnerability was seen as key to building affinity by some of history’s persuasive legends. Roman rhetorician Quintilian knew this. For him, one of the most powerful elements of transparency involved an openness about doubt and uncertainty. This idea came to be known as “dubitatio” from which we derive the modern English word “dubious.”
Leveraging Your Disadvantages
Over the centuries, dubitatio has been used to great effect by legendary leaders and communicators. Abraham Lincoln was also a master of dubitatio and some have argued that it was the key to his election as President in 1860. In a fairly unkind assessment, Jay Heinrichs in his book Thank You for Arguing described Lincoln’s many disadvantages in the presidential stakes: “What he lacked in background, he made worse in appearance: freakishly big hands, aerodynamic cheeks, a Western rube’s accent.”
However, it was the way Abraham Lincoln leveraged these “disadvantages” that was the secret to his success. Heinrichs reflects, “When he addressed New York’s elite, (Lincoln spoke) in his characteristic harsh whine and warned the crowd that they weren’t about to hear anything new.” According to Heinrichs, this approach was absolutely brilliant—a masterstroke. “His dubious opening set his highbrow audience up, not just by lowering expectations but also by conveying absolute sincerity. The speech was a smash. Without it, Lincoln likely would not have been nominated, much less elected, to the presidency that November.”
In short, it is our self-disclosure rather than our self-promotion that wins hearts.
This is true across a range of industries – even those in which we would assume certainty would win the day. Research by social psychologist Kip Williams Goldstein, highlighted in his book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, found that jurors were more likely to view an attorney and their case more favorably if the attorney revealed weaknesses in their case before the opposition had the chance to do so. In doing this, the attorney established a perception of honesty. In fact, verdicts were statistically more likely to be given in favor of the party first to bring up the issue.
A similar study by Duke University professor Chris Bail Bail identified the Twitter posts from political leaders that proved to be most impactful and persuasive. What he found was that those who were willing to criticize their own side and acknowledge its shortcomings were more likely to be seen as persuasive. Bail’s conclusion was that “Turning a critical eye on one’s own party may convince people to open up the cognitive space necessary to begin listening, or see the possibility of compromise more clearly.” Put simply, being vulnerable and open-minded gives other people permission to follow suit.
While it’s only human to want to present ourselves and our ideas in the best light, doing so is both unproductive and unpersuasive. Wherever it is that we are engaging with others, it is our candor and authenticity that will build the rapport we are hoping for. While it can feel uncomfortable or intimidating, revealing ourselves openly and exposing our vulnerabilities can work wonders in empowering our impact.