Status upgrade

Speaking through difference

I once went from Sumatra by Java by boat. It took three days and there were porpoises jumping in the wake of the boat, and all we had to eat were fish heads in broth. One day on the deck I got chatting to another bored-looking passenger. I spoke English and he spoke Indonesian and we had a long and full conversation that lasted longer than you’d think.

How? Because the universal language of human communication is nonverbal.

Through our body language and tone of voice we were constantly communicating with each other, sharing our views through subtle behaviours: laughs, smiles, shrugs, hand gestures, eyebrow raises. We knew what each other meant, we just had no clue what about.

Hidden in this encounter – hidden in plain sight – were the behaviours that established power and status between us. Neither of us was shooting for control over resources or decisions, or social prestige so the stakes were low, but the subtle cues were there all the same.

This holds true for all interactions – we are always in relationship and always giving subtle cues that influence establish power and status between people through vocal tone and verbal choices (how we say what we say).

Power is the ability to influence others or the environment – it’s how decisions get made and who makes them. Status is quite nuanced. There’s positional status (CEO, Doctor etc) and personal status (based on individual credibility).

It’s what you do

In her book Training to Imagine, Kat Koppett says: “Status can be understood not as something we are, but as something we do. We confer or accept status through our behaviours, and it is those interactions that determine who is perceived as holding the power.” 

This is good news. It means we shine the light of awareness on what’s going on here. We can practice different ways of showing up and interacting, swap habitual and unconscious choices for deliberate ones.

We can learn to use this language with more fluency and flexibility. We can change our status (higher, lower, equalised) to make positive status moves that enhance our ability to influence and support others. This stuff should be taught in every school, university and workplace.

When someone with positional power holds the intention of equalising status it helps all voices to be heard and respected. And when power is asymmetrical, knowing how to raise your status in a non-confrontational way helps your voice to be heard in the ears of those who don’t want to listen.

Hidden in plain sight

When we explore power, status and influence with groups there is often a lot of surprise at how this language is hidden in plain sight. The discovery of this language opens new possibilities for situational awareness and more dynamic and responsive interactions. We don’t have to accept being stuck in a status game that isn’t working for us or others, we can make positive status moves.

We are tuned in to every micro gesture other people make. It’s one of the things we enjoy watching films or TV – the tiny expressions that communicate meaning through the actor’s feelings. We notice this in our own interactions and respond with our own nonverbal communication.

When improv pioneer Keith Johnstone discovered the use of status in his work the effects were remarkable:

“The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvellously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All of our secret manoeuvrings were exposed.”

– Keith Johnstone, Impro – Improvisation and the Theatre

Outside the worlds of acting and improvisation we aren’t taught about this but we know this language, we use this language, but we don’t always use it intentionally. Once it has been seen it can’t be unseen.

The key is in learning to make positive status moves that equalise power and influence. Those moves can help a colleagues share more openly, and know when they need to listen and take note.

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