Soft power is where the frame negotiation for persuasion and control truly happens in our modern world.
As humans, we communicate verbally and nonverbally, and we don’t negotiate power primarily with fights.
And that means that power, in this day and age, is mostly soft power.
In this article, we will discuss the dynamics of soft power.
- Preface to Soft Power & Social Influence
- How to Control People With Soft Power
- Social Influence And Parent Role
- Soft Power In Politics
- Resisting Soft Power
Preface to Soft Power & Social Influence
Wikipedia says that social influence occurs when:
A person’s emotions, opinions or behaviors are affected by others intentionally or unintentionally.
It is indeed a form of influence that does not rely so much on coercion or physical dominance, but functions at a subtler social and mental level.
In many social interactions indeed there is one person who dominates the others at a mental and emotional level.
This person sets the frame of reference of the relationship. Setting the frame means that he originates all the non-written rules for what’s good or not good, what’s funny or not funny, what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
How Soft Power Creates Social Influence
Socially powerful individuals wield “social soft power” for a simple reason:
We want to be liked and appreciated by high-quality and high-power individuals.
When that person likes us, he gives us an emotional reward.
And when he doesn’t like us, we get an emotional punishment.
To get the reward instead of the punishment, people will conform to the high-power individual to be within his graces. Many people are also happy to submit to high-power individuals
In Power University, this website’s flagship course, we call this dynamic “the judge“.
I chose the name “judge” because it well summarizes the most powerful way with which dominant individuals wield soft power: by setting a frame of reference on what’s good or not good. And then by making people comply with their frame through their personal judgment.
The soft power of a socially dominant individual is to make people act and react based on their judgment.
It’s a soft power because there is little coercion, if at all: the submissive party is happy to obey the rules of the dominant party and actively seeks to be liked by the dominant party.
He wants to be in the judge’s good grace.
How to Control People With Soft Power
Let me preface this the right way:
There are no “secret” magical steps you can take and then people will listen to you.
There is no combination of words, no magic “abracadabra” and no buttons you can touch.
People have to want to listen to you and follow you.
In short, to have social influence you need three things:
- Be high-value / high-power (the two overlap albeit are not completely the same)
- Be warm / attainable (the two overlap, but the point is that people need to feel like you are a friendly force)
The more you can give, the more you can raise people up, the more you can make them feel good, and the more they want to be like you, the more soft power you will wield.
And here are a few practical steps for you to follow:
1. Become A High-Value Individual
The more value you have, in the more disparate fields possible, the more social power you wield, and the more you can influence people around.
When you think about increasing your value, think of personal traits and skills not as silos, but as interconnected.
Once you raise one: you raise all others:
- Sexual attractiveness
- Knowledge & life wisdom
- Personal drive
Just think about it: if you raise your competence aren’t you more confident? You will probably earn more, the ladies at work will want you more, your knowledge will also increase, etc. etc.
It’s the same for each key personality trait or life skill: raise one and you get a major uptick on all others.
2. Set The Frame
A frame is a set of beliefs, morals and ethical systems and perspectives with which people look at reality and judge the world.
Why do frames determine who has the most power in a relationship?
It’s because of what frames carry with them.
Frames carry a code of moral conduct: what’s fair and what’s not fair.
Basically, setting your frame is a bit like imposing your legal system.
And when you buy into someone’s frame, you are playing by their rules, your behavior being judged based on what they believe in.
Of course, often people don’t set their frames because they “believe” in it but simply because it’s good (for them).
Part of learning social dynamics is learning to see frames and whose frame you are playing by.
As a quick example, watch this scene from Mrs. Doubtfire:
Her frame is that the big party is stupid. His frame is that the party is fun. Whose frame is stronger?
Just look at his face to know the answer.
It’s her set of rules that wins and governs their relationship. She has the judge role, he has the defendant role. She has soft power.
3. Make Them Emotionally Addicted to Your Rewards
And the other side of the coin: make them emotionally fear your punishment.
The socially powerful individual delivers rewards and punishment which are based on his frame of reference and his value system.
In the realm of social influence, rewards and punishment are most often emotional.
This is what French and Raven called, indeed, “reward power” in their classical study “the basis of social power“.
- Time with him
Unhappiness is particularly interesting.
When there is a close relationship -especially intimate relationships- and there is a huge difference in terms of soft power, the simple act of being unhappy will be enough to make the submissive party scuttle around to make the dominant party happy again.
This is why women who wield strong social influence in relationships just need to act annoyed to make react and chase after them.
Look at this example from Scarface:
Tony has hard power.
But Elvira has soft power.
And who ends up dominating? It’s Elvira who, ultimately, controls the relationship.
This is a common refrain, by the way.
More often than not, women control relationships by wielding soft power.
Watch Out: often judging power goes to the person who is more experienced, skilled, smart and, overall higher value and more powerful. But sometimes social influence simply goes to the person who starts judging first. And most people just go along with it. Don’t be one of the “most”.
Make Them Prove to You
In relationships where one individual is the judge, the other party often ends up “proving himself” to the judge.
And that makes him the submissive party of the relationship.
In this example, I self-frame as the judge by creating a group of “adults” who read deep texts. And she’s not yet there because she’s too young (or worse: not yet “mature enough”).
That strengthens my position as the judge and her as to have to prove to me she’s “adult” enough. I’ll later tell her I was just joking of course: game-free relationships are far better.
And remember this: soft power does not require games or manipulation.
Some people will use game and power moves to accrue more soft power, but you don’t need them. Focus on the fundamentals of power, instead.
Watch Out for Shaming (Soft-Power Super-Power)
The judge role can move from soft power to harder power by increasing its coercive power with “shaming attacks”.
Shame attacks threaten to ostracize people not just from the judge, but from the whole group of reference, which in our archaic past was equivalent to a death threat.
Shame attacks use emotional constructs such as “evil”, “treason”, “dishonorable”, “not good enough (for us)” etc.
People deploying shame attacks don’t necessarily refer to an actual codified system of laws and regulation of course.
They are often using their frames of ethics and morals instead and they are delivering judgment from an authority position that, often, is self-appointed.
They position themselves as representatives of “good” and representatives of “everyone (but you)”.
And they basically say:
“this is what’s right and fair, you don’t conform (with us), so you are disgusting (and must go)”.
Shame attacks can often push people so much on the defensive that they relinquish any counterattack in exchange for forgiving.
This interview was a whole case of shame attacks delivered from a judge and parent position.
But ultimately, you want to use it strategically to enforce collaborative frames and only in exceptional circumstances to dominate others since shame is a nasty, nasty game.
You can even grow your power with it as some charismatic leaders do. But in the long run, it’s very risky.
Historically, Robespierre leveraged shame and finger-pointing for his terror. Same did Savonarola when in the name of religious zealot he had hundreds of secular books and artistic masterpieces burn in the public square of Florence.
And they both ended up executed -both of them were cases of rust in peace-.
And Avoid Identity-Based Shame Attacks
Finally, the nastiest social attacks go at the core of our identities and at what we hold dearest.
Our identities differ from person to person, but some key traits are common to many of us.
Almost all men for example partial to any attack on their “sense of being a man”.
And almost all women are easy marks for attacks on beauty and femininity.
I’m not saying never to use them, there can be some situations when any weapon that is usually unfair becomes fair.
But you definitely want to avoid relying on them as your go-to weapon because only nasty people rely on nasty tools of aggression.
4. Shit-Test Them (& Assess the Answers)
Shit-testing is a pick-up term that basically means:
Test others to assess their true worth -and if they’re good enough for you-
The soft power of social influence goes to the person who asses others.
A simple way of doing it is to poses questions.
When one party yields a strong social influence on the other, the questions aren’t just a back and forth or matter-of-factly exchanges of data.
Usually what happens instead is that the person answering is trying to impress the dominant individual -or at least, avoiding falling from his grace-.
Here is an example from the movie Meet The Parents:
De Niro’s questions are strong and direct.
Stiller makes a joke to relieve some pressure but instead of accepting the release of pressure -a friendly but not so dominant gesture- De Niro keeps piling pressure on, culminating with “but you didn’t pick it”.
Questioning can also be hard-core interrogation-style, like in this example from The Wolf of Wall Street, where Di Caprio plays a rather submissive husband.
Social Influence And Parent Role
A bit of theory now.
And when kids get rebellious in their teens they are rebelling in great part not against hard rules, but against the soft power of judgment.
They want to claim their adult independence and they don’t want anymore to be under the emotional yoke of their parents -often mother-.
In a similar fashion, when you become the judge in an adult relationship your power is to make the judged emotionally dependent on your approval, just like children used to be with their parents.
They will invest and they will be trying to win over your sympathies. Often, they will even try to change or they will work on themselves in ways they’ve never done before just to win your approval.
In romantic relationships, as we saw, judgment power usually goes to women, who on average also have more power in the sexual market place.
There is an overlap between social influence and the parent role.
Check out this video:
The course I’m referring to is Power University, with more social tech and practical examples.
When The Submissive Party Rebels
As the video mentions, if you rebel against the social influence of the judge role without first removing the judge/parent position, you are still within their frame of reference.
You are still within their spell and you still feel the whole brunt of their mind control.
We saw one example of this one in the article on female control of relationships:
His rebelling is in many ways similar to how a child would rebel against the mother.
Soft Power In Politics
Soft power, by the way, is also the name of the game in international, world power dynamics.
The last war ended 75 years ago. All the power in the last 75 years has been negotiated on the basis of potential for war and, in even larger part, on soft power.
I am convinced that one of the reasons the USSR dissolved and the US won the cold war is because of soft power.
When young Russians smuggled posters of Western pop stars and sang Western songs, that was soft power.
When Russian women wanted to visit France and Italy to meet the local men, that’s soft power. And when Russian men and women dreamed of freedom, democracy, and social mobility, that’s soft power.
Not a single shot was fired from other world powers to make the USSR collapse.
It’s soft power and social influence that worked to undermine the Soviet empire from within.
Resisting Soft Power
Sometimes it’s OK to be socially influenced.
Imagine for example the social influence of a mentor, of a more experienced good friend, or a father (or a father figure). These can all be positive social influences that draw you closer and make you grow.
However, there are also plenty of situations where you don’t want to be influenced.
A mother who is still controlling your choices as an adult for example, or a manipulator who wants to get something from you.
To overcome social influence you need to:
1. See the dynamics at play
You need, first of all, to understand that you are entering a power dynamic where people are trying to take a judge position over you.
This article is already helping you in that direction.
And this video is by no means an exhaustive list, but there are some expressions that scream “I’m the judge” and that often push people on the defensive:
When you see them, don’t overreact and don’t let it go to your head. Don’t ask what you did wrong or what’s the problem. Just reflect internally that they are taking a judge position against you.
2. Remove their judge position
First remove their authority from your mind.
Then proceed to remove their social influence by undermining their authority position or by outright calling into question their whole frame of reference.
3. Refuse the child role
Refuse both the extremes of compliance and rebellion: both are child reactions.
You must remain calm and deal with it like an adult.
Soft power is where true control of social dynamics takes place.
It relies on two major pillars:
- High personal value
- Great social skills (including persuasion, negotiation, power dynamics)
The high value makes people want to follow you, be like you, and get your approval.
The social skills help you to capitalize on that initial goodwill and further increase your soft power.