I am quite perceptive in some situations (“I always know when someone is uncomfortable at a party”) but quite naive in others.
Until I read the book “Pitch Anything” by Oren Klaff, which opened my eyes to all the different power plays that go on in daily life.
What is a power play? It’s a situation where someone attempts to exert power over you and make you feel inferior.
Here are 5 examples of power plays:
1. My Accountants Waiting Room
My friends and I all used to use the same accountant. And I remember someone commenting that the chairs were always really low, so when the accountant came out to meet you, it was always really awkward standing up to shake his hand.
I always thought this was just random.
But after reading Pitch Anything, I learnt that it’s all a power play.
Sure, they might randomly have chosen low seats, but it’s equally likely that it was intentional:
– Keeping you waiting emphasises that they are busy and you have to wait to see them
– Fancy waiting rooms can be intimidating and make you realize how powerful and important they are
– Low seating makes you feel relatively powerless compared to the other person, and when the accountant comes out to greet you and you’re looking up at him, there’s a reminder of a power differential, accentuated when you flounder to get up off your seat.
To be honest, I think things like this are petty.
In my clinic, when I finish with one client, I will immediately go out and check if the other client is there. I don’t like making people wait needlessly.
And since learning about the seating thing, nowadays especially when I’m attending a B2B meeting, I never sit down in a waiting room. I always stand or walk around, so when the other person attends, I’m already standing.
2. “I’m on a call”
I used to work for a boss, who would call you into his office and he’d be on the phone. And he’d proceed to have a 10 minute phone call, while you sat there like chopped liver.
It was so awkward, and annoying.
Now maybe it was because he was busy. But equally, it serves the purpose of showing that he was busy and in demand, and that my time wasn’t worth as much as his.
3. The person who asks the questions is in control.
I used to think that people who do the talking, are the ones who have the power. But it’s equally true, that the person who asks the questions can exert powerful control.
Imagine this scenario. You are talking to two other people. One person is a blowhard, who can’t stop talking. You and the other person are relegated to being spectators watching the oaf hold court.
But a neat trick is to ask questions, interrupt the blowhard intermittently, and direct your question to the other person.
They will get a chance to talk, and you will establish yourself as the arbiter of attention. I’ve tried this, and it leads the blowhard to start flailing and trying to get your attention.
4. “My assistant will take the meeting”
This sort of situation is mentioned specifically in the book, Pitch Anything, and it happened to me.
Several years ago, I had a meeting at a luxury department store (some would say the luxury department store) with Sally (not her real name), and when I showed up, I was met by Sally’s assistant who said “Sorry, Sally can’t make this meeting, but she asked me to speak to you, and I can pass on what you say to her”.
This was long before I had read Pitch Anything, but the right response is to say “Sorry, I made time to come down here to speak with Sally. If she can’t make it today, let’s reschedule for when she can make it”
That establishes that your time is important too, and is a higher ground maneuver that telegraphs that it’s only right that the boss attend.
Instead, I sat down with the assistant and let her ask me questions (breaking the preceding rule, asking questions gives you control). Suffice it to say, I didn’t win that pitch.
5. Politeness to the Know-it-all
I used to think some people used lots of jargon because they were clueless boffins. They had got too enmeshed in their speciality and they didn’t realise that other people couldn’t understand what they were talking about.
I’ve since learned that some people actually use jargon to intimidate and steamroll others.
For instance, as a doctor, I sometimes get into conversations about medical topics. Often non-medical people will start challenging me on things and it’s clear from what they are saying that they don’t really understand the topic at all. My politeness makes me nod my head and just say “maybe you’re right”.
But as a friend pointed out, when you say “maybe you’re right” you are making it look like you don’t have a clue about your own speciality.
In these cases, rather than continue arguing with someone who hasn’t got a clue, a better alternative is to bombard them with jargon.
Using technical terms and industry specific abbreviations works a treat. If someone is so full of themselves that they want to challenge you on your own turf, then you can bet they won’t be willing to admit that they didn’t understand a word you just said.
Don’t be a victim
I hate games. But it’s clear to me, sometimes you don’t get a choice as to whether you’re playing the game or not.
And it’s better to know what’s going on, rather than being a hapless victim of a power play.