Conversation and Power – Getting Control, Keeping Dominance …

In everyday life, exercising power is not a matter of having bigger muscles than someone else. We don’t let contests of strength decide who is going to take the lead on a business deal or wash up after dinner. At least, not physical strength. For the majority of us, power is exercised in conversation and can be applied to any conversation. You can exercise power in conversation with your friends, your partner, your kids, your neighbours, your work colleagues, even your boss (although we often don’t exercise power over our boss because we fear recriminations or embarrassment).

Achieving power in a conversation does not mean you are being bossy, manipulative or domineering. It just means you are ready to take control and ready for the unexpected, so you aren’t left playing catch up.

There are three important aspects of any conversation that will ensure you are ready to take and maintain control in a conversation.

1: The Structure of Speech: Adjacency Pairs

Every conversation is a simple exchange of statements. In the most basic form, one person says something and someone else replies. This pair of statements is called an adjacency pair.

For example, a simple adjacency pair is a question and an answer:

Speaker One: How are you today?

Speaker Two: Fine, thank you.

Getting power in a conversation means taking control of the adjacency pairs. You need to start the majority of the adjacency pairs, you need to be asking the questions first, but you also need to be aware of your responses. Just because you are asked a question does not mean you have to respond with a straightforward answer.

Keeping power with adjacency pairs means being aware of who starts which adjacency pairs and being aware of when adjacency pairs are not complete. What statements are being ignored and why? Get a measure of the other person by thinking about the statements they use to start adjacency pairs so you can identify what they are avoiding and talk to them in a way that is most effective for them.

Giving up power means letting the other person start pairings. If you remain conscious of how the other person starts adjacency pairs and how you finish a pair, you will be able to regain control when you need to.

The Subjects for Speech: Topic Shifting

After initial greetings and small talk, most conversations follow topic focused patterns with various participants bringing up different subjects for conversation. The changing of a topic of conversation is a topic shift and signals a conversational dominance or potential avoidance of a subject.

Getting power in a conversation means using topic shifts to your advantage. Find an appropriate moment to introduce a ‘by the way’ or ‘incidentally’ that will allow you to shift to what you want to talk about.

Keeping power with topic shifts means being aware when someone else tries to move away from a topic. You should use topic loops and a ‘we talking about something similar earlier’ statement to return to a subject until you are completely satisfied.

Giving up power means giving the other participants the opportunity to direct the topic. What topics are they moving away from? What topics do they return to? What topics are they comfortable with?

3: The Style of Speech: Types of Sentences

When using adjacency pairs, there are lots of different sorts of statements you can use, but only a limited number of sentence types. Different sentences will affect how statements are received and consequently on your power in a conversation. Consider the following sentence types:

The imperative: Tell me when the deadline for that project is.

The question: When is the deadline for that project?

The statement: The deadline for the project is…

Getting power in a conversation means choosing the appropriate sentence type to provoke the response you want. Direct questions are probably not the best choice when talking to your teenage son or daughter. And the imperative is probably not the best choice when talking to your boss. Instead, first consider which statement is most appropriate and then think about how you phrase your sentence. There is a big difference between saying “Tell me when the deadline for that project is” and “Remind me when the deadline for that project is.”

Keeping power with sentence types means being aware of the sentences types other speakers are using, identifying patterns in other people’s sentence types and consistently regulating your own use of sentence types.

Giving up power means responding appropriately to the sentence types used by other people. Let someone else use an imperative to give you an order, but don’t let your first response to be to act subordinate. Being aware of someone else’s desire to adopt a dominant role in a conversation means you have a clearer idea of a person’s intentions. You can accept the order, but on your terms. If you have taken stock of other speakers’ sentence types, you gain an insight into the other speaker’s perceived self-image and an idea of other people’s objectives.

Conversations are fluid, unstable interactions that we encounter everyday and form an essential aspect of almost every relationship we have. Becoming aware of how you participate in a conversation is the first step to getting and keeping power in every conversation.