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This is how to ask when you don't have power

How do you ask for what you want when you are not in a position of power?

How do you ask when the other person has the authority and the power to grant or deny what you want?

How do you negotiate when you have less power than the person in front of you?

We can learn four important lessons about asking when power is not on our side from Mary Jackson in the film Hidden Figures:

  • Stay factual

  • Make it about them and acknowledge what matters to them

  • Work to get them to agree to the small things

  • Help them to use their power according to what matters to them ( and to you!)

Hidden Figures tells the story of three black women at NASA who fought for recognition of their contribution to sending the first man to the moon.

One of these, Mary Jackson, the first back female engineer at NASA, had had to get a court order to allow her to study engineering at an all-white high-school.

The scene in the film where Mary addresses the judge demonstrates all the elements of asking without creating opposition.

  1. Stay factual

Mary doesn’t open her case by complaining that her situation is unfair (although it was).

She acknowledges the existence of segregation but adds “I think there are special circumstances that need to be considered.”

2. Make it about them and acknowledge what matters to them

When the judge asks: “What makes a coloured woman want to attend an all-white high-school?” she answers “You of all people should understand the importance of being first.”

She then enumerates the instances in which the judge has been first, and how important this was to him.

3. Work to get them to agree to the small things

When the judge asks her “What is this about?” She says “No negro woman has ever attended an all-white high school.”

Straight to the point. Factual. Undeniable – and (the part I love the most) she says “It’s unheard-of.”

To which the judge can only agree.

She doesn’t say “This is unfair, discriminatory,” etc… That’s not the conversation she wants to have.

She didn’t go to the judge to discuss discrimination.

She wants to change the system by being first.

And she stays in that conversation. That’s why her saying “It’s unheard-of” is so important; it puts her and the judge on the same page.

4. Help them use their power based on what matters to them and to you.

After saying what she wants, she adds that she needs his help to get it.

Her case isn’t “I want to go to an all-white high school because I want to be an engineer and that’s the only school I can attend.”

The judge couldn’t care less about that, and she knows it.

But the judge does care about being first.

And that’s how she frames it: “I plan to be an engineer, so I need to be first” (the first woman to attend an all-white high school).

Nicely done! Her case is about being first. Clever!

But there’s more.

She asks the judge “Of all the cases you will hear today, which one is going to matter one hundred years from now? Which one is going to make you the first.

It’s easy for him to say yes to her.

Because she’s already established what matters to him, because her petition is not confrontational and agrees with the judge’s values and belief system, and because she’s helping him to achieve something that matters to him: being first - in this instance the first to decree that a black woman can attend an all-white high school).

There’s a great lesson in this conversation.

We don’t need to fight power all the time. We can help others use their power in a way that supports both their narratives, their beliefs and their values and our goals.

It’s always good to establish what really matters to them, their interest and narratives and what they want to see happening when they use their power in a way that supports us, before starting any negotiation or engaging with any potential confrontation.

We all have many narratives that matter to us. Don’t think that because people have different opinions you can’t find a common ground.

Because once you do, you‘ll see possibilities and opportunities unfolding before you.


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