How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
When we talk about power, we can consider it as somewhere on a spectrum from 'soft' to 'hard'. But what does this metaphor mean?
It can be quite difficult to define soft power, possibly because it is a subtly force. A soft way of defining it is to start with what it is not.
Hard power is, at the hardest, about physical coercion. Incarceration and physical punishment, control of the body is degrading but necessary for those who might otherwise harm others. It is also used in times of physical warfare or repression of dissent.
Mental coercion, including blackmail and making other threats that create fear, is also hard. Fear is a characteristic of hard power. People comply because they fear punishment or being harmed in some way.
Much power is moderate. It is not hard, nor is it soft. Much of the power in society and in organisations is moderate. There is power from the positions that people are given, power from the resources that are held and power from the individual influence that people have. Yet seldom is this used in a hard way.
Power that might be hard is moderated by rules and regulations that control how it is used. Managers who once might have been rather coercive now have to consider employment law and company values. People in society who once may have threatened others must consider both laws and social norms. In fact most people are considerate of others and would balk at the thought of using hard power.
Now we know something of what soft power is not, here's more about what it is.
A defining element of soft power is that it is passive. It does not seek to persuade. It just is. It envelopes but does not resist when pushed. It goes with the flow, though it does not flee. It follows and stays in touch.
Soft power works not because it seeks to directly influence but through subtle and indirect means. At best, it is completely undetectable. It goes around obstacles. It seeks inattention. It inveigles its way in through neglected routes. It spreads without notice.
Soft power does not ask. It shows. To create behavior, just act in the way that you want others to act. Seeing your behavior as worthy (and you as worthy), others may hence seek to imitate you.
Soft power works well for transmission of values. I act consistently with what I believe. If others see and appreciate these behaviors they may start to act in similar ways. And, by the principle of consistency, they will consequently change their beliefs in order to sustain internal harmony.
Soft power may seem to have little power, yet it can have far greater effect than hard power.
Have you ever been in an organization or a social group where one person is really likeable. They do not seem to ask much but somehow they have a huge effect on the group. Opposite to the effect of a 'toxic' personality, they seem to infect everyone around with their calm and positive ways.
In Tai Chi and other soft martial arts, soft power works by connecting so softly with the other person that they cannot feel your touch. In the connection, you sense where they are and hence can avoid their attacks, destabilize them and lead them in any direction of your choosing.
Martial arts can also be hard, yet the softer arts, once mastered, are by far the most effective.
Beyond the good cop, bad cop routine, much can be achieved in interrogation through softer methods. Hard methods may break the weaker willed, but those who know the most will likely be made more resistant by oppressive methods.
A better way is to connect with the person, showing sympathy and interest in their lives and, by your breaking of the tough stereotype, getting through to their confidence.
Politicians know that a good speech is worth its weight in ballot slips. A good public speaker can move millions with soft words that connect and sway opinion.
Speeches can also be hard and threatening, but although they can stir people to action, these do not connect the speaker with the audience. The master of soft power in speaking can easily be seen as a saint and gain followers who will follow them to the ends of the earth.
Much use of power is short-term, with immediate or near-term goals. The use of soft power is a long game, with no immediate goals.
There are sometimes attempts to cloak the political aspect of cultural diplomacy, for example by calling it 'cultural communication'. The British Council is an organ of the UK Government that seeks to spread good British values of hard work and fair play throughout the world, showing the best of British culture wherever there is a British embassy. Other countries do the same sort of things. This can effectively create a hidden 'soft war' that few except the most hard-line will notice, let alone resist.
The BBC's World Service radio acts similarly, subtly spreading British values through honest stories of human interest. A key reason that the BBC has such a powerful effect is because it has engendered trust through truth for many years.
With the advent of global markets and the internet, the influence of other cultures and individuals is everywhere. Even if you do not use the internet, you are massively affected by it through the perceptions created in the people around you.
There are critical questions asked as to whether we will end up with a single global culture. Perhaps this is already seeping in as we talk of 'youth culture' and the 'internet generation'.
If you have the time and inclination, you can achieve much with the subtle and steady use of soft power.
Perhaps this website is doing this? It seeks to inform and help, and if successful is creating change around the world. Who knows who might read it and use its knowledge for what purpose?