The Inclusive Power of Language

Three years ago, things were going well for me and my colleagues at The Latimer Group. We were like a boat running hard downwind in a following breeze. The wind was blowing the dog off the chain, and we were barely holding on, white knuckles at all times. But even though the breeze was blowing hard, we were on the wrong gybe, and were losing bearing on our mark. We were totally overpowered, moving fast, but with every puff card we were nearly broaching. All we could do was hold on, and hope for the wind to die down a little so we could gybe and head towards our mark…

Oh… wait… you don’t “speak sailing”? So… you don’t have any idea what I am talking about? Maybe you get the overall sense that things were out of control. But you don’t really get the story, do you? OK. Let me try that again, in English…

Three years ago, things were going well for me and my colleagues at The Latimer Group. The “wind” of the economy was at our back, and it was strong. A lot of business was flowing in. We were moving hard and fast, but with all the business that was coming in, we felt like we were constantly on the edge of being out of control. Every new piece of business was another piece of pressure that almost did us in. All we could do was try our best every day, and survive one day, one week, one month at a time. We knew we wanted to make some changes in the business to deal with our capacity issues, but we were moving too fast every day to catch our breath and make the changes we needed to make.

Is that better? Sorry about that. I just assumed you all spoke sailing.

My colleagues and I talk about language and the power of words all the time. The words we use are an important part of the persuasion skills that are at the heart of what The Latimer Group does. But the words we use are also an important part of the way we build teams and bring people together, which is at the heart of leadership. In other words, the words we use and the manner in which we speak is also at the heart of inclusion. Inclusion has become, for some, a political hot button issue. But for me and my colleagues at The Latimer Group, inclusion is really about building organizations and teams that welcome different perspectives and make everyone feel like they have a place at the table. It is an important issue, for lots of good reasons.

Over the last twenty years, I have coached and trained thousands of people. And I have had many quiet conversations and been asked some version of the following many times: “how can I get my boss/colleague to treat me like I am part of the team?” I have worked with women who feel all alone inside a boys’ club atmosphere, because they don’t “speak sports”. I have worked with young people who are made to feel like intruders by their older colleagues, often because the experiences that are shared around the table always are about something that happened long ago. I have worked with older people who are made to feel out of touch by their younger and more culturally-current colleagues, because of constant references to cultural icons or new developments in technology that an older colleague is unlikely to know. I have worked with people of color, male and female, who are made to feel like their value to the organization is exclusively about the “boxes” they help the organization check.

There are lots of ways we can make someone feel excluded and not welcomed… a look… a lack of eye contact… an actual exclusion from a meeting or gathering of some kind. But often, in my experience, the language we use, the stories we tell, and the metaphors and examples we rely on are at the heart of making people feel included or excluded.

Have you ever felt excluded? I have… many times. And it sucks. And I am a 50-something white guy who owns his own business, donates a lot of money, and is generally in charge of his own destiny every day. So I am sure I don’t feel it nearly as often as some others. But I have felt it, and I have coached many people who feel it all the time. It… never… feels… good.

My point here today is that the words, stories and metaphors we use have power. Language has power. It has the power to bring people together, and make them feel included, like they are part of something. It also has the power to make people feel left out, ignored, and not at all welcome. How are you going to use your language? Are you going to use it include or exclude? Because we all make that choice, consciously or subconsciously, hundreds of times each day.

So, the next time you are in a gathering of some kind, be aware and thoughtful. If you are in a meeting of engineers, and there might be someone who doesn’t “speak engineering” the way the rest of you do, consider using fewer acronyms or less jargon. If you are in a gathering, and are not sure whether everyone “speaks football” consider talking about some other element of your weekend. If you are in a gathering of colleagues who have known each other for a really long time, except for one brand new hire, maybe avoid all the stories about things that happened “around here” ten years ago. Instead, think about drawing everyone into the conversation. This is how we build great teams, high-functioning organizations, and make people want to be part of something. That’s what great leaders and colleagues do. That’s also what kind and empathetic humans do.

Your language has the power to include… or exclude. Which will it be?

Have a great day.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.