Status Work & Attunement

I am about halfway through Daniel H. Pink’s new book To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, a book recommended to me by my friend and founder of the Employee Engagement Network, David Zinger, and I just had to write about the chapter on “attunement” and its correlations to impro and, particularly, to status work.  First of all, Pink’s thesis is that we are all in sales, that is, we are all selling something (ideas, services, or products) and trying to move others whether it be in the workplace or in everyday life.  Pink also advocates applying impro methods to negotiations and recommends the work and books of Johnstone, Spolin, Patricia Ryan Madson, among others.  This is one of my favorite quotes in Pink’s book: “If improvisational theater has a Lenin – a well-spoken revolutionary who provides a movement its intellectual underpinnings – that person is Johnstone” (204).  When I told Keith about this analogy, he replied, “Trotsky more like.”  Okay, I’d have to brush up on my Marxism and Russian politics to fully grasp that one, so I will leave it for now.

Pink describes “attunement” as “the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and with the context you’re in” (70).  Effectively attuning yourself to others—social psychologists call it “perspective-taking”—requires the application of several principles that those of us trained in Keith’s status work will immediately grasp.  One is to “increase your power by reducing it.”  Studies have shown that people with a lot of power are not always the best at moving others in today’s markets.  Customers now have a ton of information at their finger-tips, and the more informed the customer is, the more likely he/she doesn’t need some high-status salesperson telling them what to do, what to buy, or how to think.  Instead, they want someone who is responsive to their needs, their perspectives, and they want someone they can trust.  When working on status with students, I often remind them that effective “high-status” people are not jerks.  As Keith says, “Gandhi was high-status.”  In other words, high-status people are often the ones who have the ability to move and inspire others towards desired goals and outcomes, and sometimes they must lower their status (reduce their power) to get on the same wavelength and/or to get inside the mind of the person they are trying to move.

Being able to observe and interpret status transactions, or what Keith calls “the kinetic dance,” is also a valuable skill and something I work on with my impro, acting, and directing students.  I have all of my students, at least once, do a “kinetic dance observation.”  Basically, they spy on a group of people in a social situation and try to determine their relationship and status levels (i.e., pecking-order) simply by watching the physical behavior as it unfolds.  Pink calls the ability to observe and quickly interpret the dynamics of any group “social cartography” and he says it is vital to negotiations.  Some people are born social cartographers and can intuitively assess any situation, but I have seen students develop this skill through status work.

Finally, Pink says “strategic mimicry,” that is, consciously syncing up your behavior with others, is also a crucial component in attunement and, consequently, in moving others.  It is in our DNA to trust those who are more like us.  Keith says that if you go into an audition and attempt to physically match status with those behind the table, you’re more likely to get the job because you seem like “one of them.”  Watching a scene in which two actors effectively stay at the same status level or see-saw slightly above or below the other is lovely.  It looks like authentic human interaction and the kinetic dance flows.  Again, students can practice status techniques and, in turn, use these techniques on stage and off not to manipulate or coerce but rather to tune in, to tap into someone else’s way of thinking and feeling, and to move others in positive directions.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Pink’s book in combination with Johnstone’s status work!