Notes on ‘Soft Power’

Gleaned from [1]

Power is the ability to get what you want. As what you want is often constrained by other people, the use of power often includes changing or influencing what others think, believe and do. It is at the heart of many techniques of changing minds.

Understand the power you have, as well as the power of other people. Use your own power carefully. Perhaps the greatest power you can have is to get others to use their power on your behalf.

Beware of sleeping dragons, many people will only use their power when aroused. The most effective power is that used so subtly that people do not realize it is being used.

Power does not have to be used directly: threats are often effective, especially when accompanied by displays of power. Like gorillas thumping their chests, we seldom need to fight.

When we talk about power, we can consider it as somewhere on a spectrum from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’.  It can be difficult to define soft power, because it is such a subtle force. A way of defining it, is to start with what it is not.

Hard power

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 and for 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.

Moderate power

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 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.

Soft power is a concept coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce.


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.

At its best, soft power connects, bonding with others. This connection of identity joins two people as one. When they become as you, then they will align in all ways.  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 breaking through the tough stereotype, getting through to their confidence.

A good public speaker can move millions with soft words that connect and sway opinion. Speeches can also be hard and threatening, but they 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.  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.

If you have the time and inclination, you can achieve much with the subtle and steady use of soft power.

RS Fakebook Screenshot

How do powerful people behave? Here are some of the things they do, and why. In particular powerful people act either to get what they want or simply to sustain and enhance their power.

Using symbols

Powerful people often use the symbols of power to demonstrate to others that they are powerful. They dress in expensive clothes, drive new and powerful clothes. They have powerful friends and let others know this.

Power is often illusory, and is as much about confidence as anything else, with power being ceded by those who believe they have less. Symbols are consequently a part of the tool-kit that ‘powerful’ people use to persuade others that they have more real power than they perhaps have.

Truly powerful people are often understated in how they dress and how they use symbols. By an almost reverse psychology, they say ‘I do not need symbols’ and they live more by their reputation and the quiet knowledge that they can get everything they need. The symbols of power are still significant but in their absence rather than their presence.

Speaking more or less

Depending on whether they have a psychological need to be heard or not, powerful people will speak more or less. The more extroverted people will take the stage and pronounce for a long as they like, quite possibly in a louder voice.

Others will wait quietly then speak briefly but forcefully. Speaking at the end, after others speak is a distinct technique as it allows the person to take account of the useful information gained by listening to others. It also allows the powerful person to praise or criticize other speakers. As others have already spoken, it also allows the powerful person to close the conversation or change topic.


When speaking, powerful people will interrupt more. When they want to speak, they will speak rather than waiting politely for others to end. Speaking when they want is an example of how powerful people will break rules.

Powerful people will also touch others, breaking rules of ‘no touch’. This needs to be done with care and within stricter cultural rules, for example touching only on the arm, back and shoulders. Stronger rule-breaking may include patting on the head and gripping the other person.


Rule-breaking may be deliberate, to demonstrate the person’s power. It may also enhance power, for example when they interrupt another person, thus showing they are more powerful, pushing themselves up the hierarchy and the other person down.

Rule-breaking may also be unthinking as the powerful person is so accustomed to getting what they want that without criticism, they may act recklessly, damaging everything around them. On the other hand, they may use it as a deliberate signal, showing that by breaking a rule once they can choose to do it at any time they like.

Trusting more

When less powerful people trust more powerful people they may be putting themselves in danger, as when conflict arises between them, the powerful person will likely win. Less powerful people consequently are less trusting of more powerful people.

In the reverse case, powerful people know they punish others if they are not trustworthy and that they have the means to extricate themselves from a damaging situation. In this consequence there is less risk for them to trust and so they trust more.

Thinking less

People with less power may be harmed by people with power so they think carefully before speaking to powerful people. And because powerful people do not have to worry about what others might think about them, they think less before speaking.

Also, because they have the power to change decisions, they often think less before making decisions. On the other hand, if the decision might affect their power then they will be more cautious. For example a rich person will spend a smaller sum (which seems large to the average person) with impunity, whilst they will be more cautious spending large sums.

Thinking more

People with a focus on power may also think more, deliberately using the methods in this article in order to signal that they are powerful. Power is often ceded by those who perceive they are less powerful, and this response may be purposely prompted.