A Positive Language Environment
By Steven James Lawrence
When facilitating meetings, change efforts, and mediating conflicts, my approach is to help promote a “positive language environment.”
I borrowed this phrase from the book “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work” by Dr. Suzette S. Elgin, Ph.D. I highly recommend this book to all organizations, communities, group projects and businesses, as it offers some very useful strategies for de-escalating potential conflicts and neutralizing the many forms of “verbal violence” that can undermine the mission and even the financial well-being of an enterprise.
I believe that positive communication is a serious determinant in the outcomes of any group process, so I’ve developed these norms as a guiding framework for myself when I collaborate with others. These norms are by no means exhaustive nor are they intended to be prescriptive. Most of the Language Norms were developed and adapted from the various strands of research on organizational learning, education reform and linguistics. I first introduced them as part of the by-laws for a faculty senate of a large public school.
In the book I mentioned above, Elgin examines the harmful impact covert aggression can have on an organization’s goals. She identifies a number of covert verbal attack patterns and offers ways for people to turn potential attacks into productive encounters without compromising the honor of either party. She also identifies what she calls the “linguistic toxins” that can undermine an organization’s goals if they are allowed to continue over a long period of time.
It can be useful to identify language and behavior patterns that can either facilitate or undermine productivity and trust. To that end, I’m providing a list of Language Norms below, followed by their “toxic” counterparts, which I refer to as “unproductive norms.”
1. Welcome Undiscussable Topics
Unproductive norms: how dare you bring that up; that is inappropriate; we already figured out how to fix that issue, don’t bring it up again; your issue isn’t important; this problem isn’t even a “thing”; this issue is not that serious; you have no right to mention this problem; your feelings as an oppressor will not be discussed or even recognized
Welcoming all topics for consideration is important because undiscussed topics can have a potentially devastating impact on goals, relationships, and outcomes on all scales. This means that all views -even uncomfortable ones- need to be placed on the table. (Senge, et al, 1994; Strauss, 2002; Heifitz, Grashow, Linsky, 2009).
2. Offer the Most Persuasive Argument
Unproductive norms: Name calling; Accusations of some”ism” instead of addressing the substance of the argument; Justifying, rationalizing, defending, ignoring proposed alternatives to existing frameworks, procedures or processes, refusal to offer reasoning, not acknowledging the reasoning of opposing viewpoints
The best decisions are based on the most persuasive argument -not on formal authority. Reasoning behind ideas and decisions should be provided in all circumstances to ensure mutual understanding and peaceable solutions. Arguments should be based on the mission of the organization, ethical considerations, physical/mental health of clients partners, and stakeholders, relevant laws, goals and outcomes. All other considerations should be secondary (Carlson, 1996)
3. Avoid Pejorative Labeling
Unproductive norms: Racist!, White Supremacist!, Homophobe!, Transphobe!, Sexist!, Ableist!, Social Justice Warrior!, SJW, Right Wing Nut Job, Libtard, Lefty Fascist!, Race-baiter!, Feminazi, bitch, Cishet!, Cis!, White Male!, negative, divisive (if not actually divisive), too angry (not to be confused with bullying), harsh tone, troublemaker, self-righteous, opinionated
Stigmatizing people with labels is counterproductive. If an issue continues to go unresolved, those who bring the issues to light might grow frustrated and the organization will suffer. Adding pejorative labeling to the situation effectively shames people into silence, which can further undermine the goals of a community or even a nation.
It should be noted that the dark side of an organization, community or political regime often surfaces with the tactic of controlling conversations and silencing questions. Pejorative labeling is the most common strategy, and we can promote its demise by naming it out in the open (Strauss, 2002; Blase & Blase, 2003).
4. State Intentions
Unproductive norm: Trust good intentions
It is more productive to state our intentions directly in all circumstances than to expect others to trust our intentions. It is always helpful to reduce the potential for anxiety and mistrust among partners, clients, subordinates, colleagues and management. Leaving others to guess what we are up to is bound to lead to unnecessary conflicts, because we leave open the possibility of incorrect assumptions about our intentions. (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, Smith, 1994; Kegan, Lahey, 2001).
5. Balance Inquiry and Advocacy
Unproductive norms: immediate shutdown when opposing viewpoints are expressed; not asking an opponent (or participant) to explain his/her reasoning during discussion; controlling the conversational space to advance one’s point of view; refusing to offer one’s thinking or reasoning; relentless interrogating instead of genuinely inquiring into another’s view(s)
Active listening is a challenging task in any organization or community. We can set a reasonable standard for harmonious discussions by balancing our need to advocate our own positions with the responsibility to ask questions about the positions of others. Of course, demonstrating curiosity and genuine interest in another’s views on a subject is not the same as relentlessly interrogating to find fault or sitting in stony silence to express disapproval (Senge, et al, 1994; Elgin, 2000; Kegan, Lahey, 2001; Strauss, 2002).
Summary on Language Norms
The key to creating a positive language environment is to talk to one another in a way that is intentional and unobstructive. This would be a departure from the “language of complaint” that is common in communities towards a “language of commitment.” A community that speaks the language of commitment is one in which there are no secrets or linguistic tricks. It is one in which strategies for controlling the conversational space are set aside for those that engender mutual trust and a sense of partnership.
In such a space, all participants will happily take up the responsibility to assert their competence in good faith, rather than shrink away for fear of being attacked or labeled. However, it should be noted that obstructive language patterns are common in organizational life and often arise during discussions, if inadvertently.
These language norms can serve as a guide in navigating these obstacles and offer a protective container for the conversational space.