Influence vs. Power: Lessons from The Breakfast Club - Michael Grinder & Associates

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Influence vs. Power: Lessons from The Breakfast Club

Michael Grinder here. How do I explain what is appropriate and what is inappropriate power? Because if you don’t understand that, whether you’re a police officer, a teacher, or a parent, you’re going to overuse power.

So, I’m going to use a scene from the classic movie, 1985, The Breakfast Club. The scene is called, “Eat My Shorts.” And this is the film right now, exactly where it all starts. We’re going to watch it the first time, and then the second time through, I’m going to stop and talk about:

  • Where is the power?
  • How is it being exhibited?
  • Who’s actually doing the escalation here?

So here’s the beginning of a scene that is one minute and 40 seconds long:

Vernon: You’re not fooling anybody, Bender. The next screw that falls out is going to be you.

Bender: Eat my shorts.

Vernon: What was that?

Bender: Eat my shorts.

Vernon: You just bought yourself another Saturday, Mr.

Bender: Oh, I’m crushed.

Vernon: You just bought one more right there.

Bender: Well, I’m free the Saturday after that. Beyond that, I’m going to have to check my calendar.

Vernon: Good, because it’s going to be filled. We’ll keep going. You want another one? Say the word? Just say the word. Instead of going to prison you’ll come here. Are you through?

Bender: No.

Vernon: I’m doing society a favor.

Bender: So?

Vernon: That’s another one right now. I’ve got you for the rest of your natural born life if you don’t watch you step. You want another one?

Bender: Yes.

Vernon: You got it. You got another one right there. That’s another one, pal.

Claire: Cut it out. *Whispers* Stop.

Vernon: You through?

Bender: Not even close, Bud.

Vernon: Good. You got one more right there.

Bender: You really think I give a —?

Vernon: Another. You through?

Bender: How many is that?

Brian: That’s seven including the one when we first came in and you asked Mr. Vernon here, whether Barry Manilow knew that he rated his closet.

Vernon: Now it’s eight. You stay out of it. Excuse me. Start seven.

Brian: Excuse me, sir, it’s seven.

Vernon: Shut up, Peewee. You’re mine, Bender. For two months I gotcha. I gotcha.

Bender: What can I say? I’m thrilled.

Vernon: Oh, I’m sure that’s exactly what you want these people to believe. You know, something, Bender? You want to spend a little more time trying to do something with yourself and a little less time trying to impress people.

“The Breakfast Club” 1985

Well, there it is. Only a minute and 40 seconds that we’re watching from this clip, from a classic educational setting called The Breakfast Club. You already know it’s a detention center for a Saturday morning. We have five students in there, each from different social-economic levels.

We have to define some terms for us to understand how to interpret what we’re actually watching.

What do we mean when we say someone is operating from power, versus someone is operating from influence?

We’re going to pretend that you can say that power is the same as positional authority. And we are also going to say that influence is almost personal persuasion.

So from a nonverbal standpoint, what are the characteristics of being influential and being powerful?

What does operating from influence look like?

  • When you approach from the side.
  • When you have the eyes on the student’s work.
  • If you’re farther from the student.
  • If you’re more non-verbal.
  • If you’re breathing low.

What does operating from power look like?

  • When you come directly up from the front.
  • When you make sure that you have your eyes on the student — especially watch what happens when the pupils get high in the eye socket.
  • When you are physically close.
  • When you are more verbal, especially a strident, louder kind of voice.
  • If you’re breathing really, really high.

So now we understand what is power and what is influence. The next thing we need to understand is that there are two states that someone can be in. They can be appropriate or inappropriate. Most of the time we manage when they’re inappropriate, so we have to get them over to be appropriate.

So now the question is, how do you take influence versus power when you’re trying to go from inappropriate over to appropriate? That’s what we want to talk about.

Now, to understand how power and influence fit with appropriate and inappropriate, we have to add a third term. That third term is called neutral. Neutral, much like the gears in your car when you are shifting, you can’t go from first gear to second gear without going through neutral.

When a student is in an inappropriate state and you want to move them over to be appropriate, you’ve got to go through neutral.

What does neutral look like?

Neutral is the key to understanding if we are moving them off of the inappropriate, over to appropriate.

For the average teacher, picture a student who’s at their desk and they’re fiddling with something, and the teacher comes over. Initially, the student is oblivious that the teacher is coming over. When the teacher gets close enough, oftentimes the student is startled by noticing that the teacher is there. They oftentimes will pull their body back and they’ll look directly at the teacher. Other times they go like this, “Gasp.” They inhale and they look straight down and they won’t look at the teacher. That’s the average classroom.

The scene that we’re looking at in The Breakfast Club is much more confrontational. In a confrontation, neutral oftentimes looks more like a de-escalation than anything else.

What do we mean by that? If they’ve been making eye contact, they don’t make eye contact anymore. If their pupils have been high in their eye socket, their pupils tend to be in the center of their eye socket.

How about in terms of what their body is? Watch for body shifts. If someone is like this, and now they shift in any other form, especially if they turn away from their opposition, that’s neutral in a confrontational situation.

Why is that movement, that body shift, so important? It helps breathing. You’ve got to have oxygen to the brain. Why? Because it’s the only way you can have other than primate reaction, fight or flight. So we need to make sure we get a student to breathe. And we know that they’re breathing when they move.

Now, the last thing, watch the voice. If the voice softens in volume and it’s less strident in terms of what’s going on, then the person has gone to de-escalation.

So in a confrontation, neutral is critical, but it’s a different set of what it does look like compared to a regular classroom teacher.

Now let’s go back and watch the scene again. We’ll slow it down and show you when the person, vice-principal, goes to power and how the student will therefore go to neutral. But watch what the person of power does — they go back to power, and that means that the student goes back into opposition again.

You can’t go from inappropriate to appropriate without going through neutral. But if you use power to get to neutral, be careful. It won’t get you to appropriate. Let’s watch it again.

Vernon: You’re not fooling anybody, Bender. The next screw that falls out is going to be you.

Bender: Eat my shorts.

Vernon: What was that?

Michael Grinder: Now, there’s no question that the student is inappropriate, but he did it at a whisper. It was not that aggressive. We could spend some time talking about should the person who’s in a position of power, knowing that they’ve been insulted, handle that in front of the group, or privately? That’s a different videotape that we’ll do. Watch what the person of authority does moving towards, being frontal.

Bender: Eat my shorts.

Michael Grinder: Definitely. That is straight power. Something is completely inappropriate from the student’s side. Watch what the person of positional power does.

Vernon: You just bought yourself another Saturday, Mr.

Michael Grinder: Now, when he went to power, which is frontal eyes, hand out, the student actually shifts. How do we know the student shifts? In a confrontational situation like this, a shift is when you break eye contact. Now watch the neutral and then watch what the person of positional power does. He doesn’t stop. He goes back to power again.

Bender: Crushed.

Vernon: You just bought one more.

Michael Grinder: Here we go. Power again.

Vernon: Right there.

Bender: Well, I’m free the Saturday after that.

Michael Grinder: Now it’s power against power. Absolutely. But notice who initiated from the neutral back to power versus power? It was not the student. It was a person of authority.

Bender: Beyond that, I’m going to have to check my calendar.

Michael Grinder: This is straight power. Now we have to go to power again. Watch what happens when the person goes to power in terms of what the student does.

Vernon: Because it’s going to be filled. We’ll keep going.

Michael Grinder: Watch, watch, watch him physically move back. That’s neutral. Watch his eyes.

Vernon: You want another one?

Michael Grinder: Doggone it. In this minute and 40 seconds, the person in positional power five times does a rhetorical statement. In a confrontational situation, there are no rhetorical questions.

Come on. Be honest, who is doing the change of the student’s neutral back to power? It’s not the student. It’s the adult.

Vernon: Say the word. Just say the word.

Michael Grinder: Look, look, look. That’s neutral.

Vernon: Instead of going to go to prison, you’ll come here.

Michael Grinder: And now the student is fine. He’s neutral. But the person of authority has to do the rhetorical statement again.

Vernon: You through?

Bender: No.

Vernon: I’m doing society a favor.

Michael Grinder: Every time you have a student at neutral and you continue to do power, you activate the student going back to being inappropriate again.

Bender: So?

Vernon: That’s another one right now. I’ve got you for the rest of your natural born-

Michael Grinder: Boy. This is escalating. This is absolutely escalating.

Vernon: If you don’t watch your step, you want another one?

Michael Grinder: You can’t ask rhetorical questions.

Bender: Yes.

Vernon: You got it. You got another one right there. That’s-

Michael Grinder: We went back to neutral. We went back to neutral. Now, watch what happens.

Vernon: One pal.

Claire: Cut it out.

Michael Grinder: We have someone else coming into the picture, a student, and now watch what she does. She whispers. That’s not power. That’s influence.

Claire: Stop.

Vernon: You through?

Michael Grinder: Why does a person of power have to blow up by going with another rhetorical question? Why? Watch what happens?

Bender: Not even close, Bud.

Vernon: Good, you got one more right there.

Bender: You really think I give a —?

Vernon: You through?

Bender: How many is that?

Brian: That’s seven, including when we first came in, you asked Mr. Vernon-

Michael Grinder: Here’s the one you want to watch. The logical, linear student just being factual. The person that positional power goes to power and watch what this student does. He goes to neutral. I promise. Power oftentimes will get a student to neutral. This particular student will stay at neutral or go silent, which is quite appropriate in the circumstances that we have in front of us.

Brian: Whether Barry Mandalo knew that he raided his closet.

Vernon: Now it’s eight. You stay out of it.

Brian: Excuse me, sir, it’s seven.

Vernon: Shut up.

Michael Grinder: Here he goes, insulting.

Vernon: Peewee.

Michael Grinder: Now that student is at neutral and watch what the student does because there’s no more power, he’s now appropriate. Now back to the two main adversaries we have here.

Vernon: You’re mine, Bender. For two months —

Michael Grinder: Look how high the pupils are in the eye socket of that student, right there. Look at that. Look at that. That’s power versus power. Now what’s amazing is in this particular scene, compared to the baseline of the power that the vice principal has been using, the vice principal is going to go to influence and watch what the student-

Vernon: For two months I gotcha, I gotcha.

Michael Grinder: Neutral.

Bender: What can I say? I’m thrilled.

Vernon: Oh, I’m sure that’s exactly what you want these people to think. You know, something Bender?

Michael Grinder: Now the voice pattern of the vice principal comes down. Watch what the student does. Remember the student’s pupils are high in the eye socket. He, the student, is facing the vice principal.

Vernon: You want to spend a little more time trying to do something with yourself and-

Michael Grinder: Whoa. Use of influence shifts the person to neutral, also.

Vernon: Less time trying to impress people.

Michael Grinder: Look at the amount. Let me back it up. Watch the amount that the student is doing neutral. Here we go.

Vernon: You want to spend a little more time trying to do something with yourself and a little less time trying to impress people.

Michael Grinder: Lately, I’m using The Breakfast Club to help us recognize when to stop using power. It’s my personal attempt to add to the George Floyd dialogue.

But the concept of inappropriate, neutral, and appropriate, is transferable. George Floyd was neutralized and power was still used. What happens in the classroom is not comparable to that, but we can learn from both by understanding that recovery is more important than perfection. You’re not going to have a perfect day. We don’t live in Camelot.

So make sure you breathe low. If you know what your buttons are that get pressed when you’re supervising any group of people, take your non-dominant hand — most of us are right-handed, so take your left hand — and put it on your abdomen. Make sure you can feel yourself breathing in and breathing out.

Now you have more oxygen to the brain. Now surprise will tend to decrease and recovery becomes more of an option.

How do you use power vs. influence in a management setting?

Simply put, let’s break down two ingredients that absolutely would take a management situation and escalate it into a discipline situation. Those two ingredients are:

  1. Eye contact. Simple rule of thumb, if you’re making eye contact with someone, yours and the other person’s emotions are going to go up. Now, if those emotions are positive, you want them to go up. But if the emotions you are getting, when you’re making eye contact, such as in a management situation, is not the emotions you want, stop making eye contact. Look where the regulations are. Expectations. Make sure that it’s something that is written, that indicates what they need to be doing at this time.
  2. Non-verbal. Anything you can do to go non-verbal in your communication instead of talking, absolutely will decrease the likelihood of accelerating a management situation into a discipline situation. I love the quote from Erin Taylor, who says:

“In a confrontational situation, rhetorical questions are an invitation to escalation.”

Erin Taylor

I want to end being very blatant. I want to strongly suggest the concepts from this clip come from this book, “ENVoY.” This is our classroom management book that is designed to make classrooms a civil situation — where relationships are preserved while your standards are absolutely increased.

Michael Grinder here. Thank you for being in the role of being a teacher, supervisor, police officer, parent.

Want an deeper dive into this topic? Check out the full version here.

In this version, you’ll get:

7:58 a third look at The Breakfast Club clip with labels of power, influence, or neutral (no commentary)

17:55 Insights from “Blink,” a book by Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a deeper look at when to use power vs. influence and how to get from inappropriate to appropriate in management situations.

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