The power of language for breaking barriers

The power of language for breaking barriers

‘In good times, but especially in bad times we discover over and over again how powerful language can be. Words can heal or they can hurt, they can unite or they can divide nations.’ 

No matter where you are in the world, you have probably been watching daily briefings from the leaders of your country as they try to navigate us through the current pandemic. You may have also noticed the reports / headlines / social media posts highlighting the success of women leaders during this time.

 

Plenty of countries with male leaders have also done well. But when you consider the fact that women make up only 7% of heads of state, we can safely say women have disproportionately passed this test with flying colours. But why?

Traditionally, women leaders have been criticised as being over emotional, too empathetic, not focused enough on the business side of things…. These women leaders have shown they are committed to the business of saving lives and saving their country’s economy. They are literally making life and death decisions that require the support of millions of people to be effective and they are gaining that support because they are emotional and empathetic. So can we once and for all agree that these traits are not a weakness?

The 39 year-old Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden has been praised for her leadership style. She spoke to the country about Covid-19 with empathy, respect, clarity and responsibility. These are the key communication ingredients required in a period of uncertainty and stress as COVID19.  Whilst she has addressed the big issues of job security and quarantine measures, she’s also addressed the logistical issues the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy may face. Similarly Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen and Norway’s prime minster Erna Solberg have both taken the unusual step of directly addressing the country’s children. These women are demonstrating their awareness that they are responsible for leading everyone in their country and they are able to adapt their communication styles appropriately.

As mothers we are also faced with the need to adapt our communication style depending on the age of our children for example. Whilst these examples highlight the maternal nurturing instincts of these leaders, which again are often seen as weaknesses in women leaders, these women are successful because they have an arsenal of weapons in their communication toolbox. Not everyone is born a skilled communicator.  You can learn through communication and media training how to improve the clarity of your message but you can’t learn empathy in a course, it comes with life experience.

What I picked up while listening to Jacinda is that she is not preaching to me, but she stands next to me as she is talking. Her tone is calm and reassuring and I almost felt that she cared about me personally, and I am not even from New Zealand! When I compare this speech with the one of a variety of male leaders what I find striking is their choice of language. Even Mark Rutte, the prime minister of The Netherlands, who is seen as a charismatic communicator falls in the trap of preaching when he wants to show care and empathy.

Seven years ago I  was invited to join a structural dynamics certification training delivered by David Kantor institute and since than I used David Kantor’s model and assessment tool to help many teams and leaders with improving their interpersonal communication.  Let me give you a short snippet of how we can use this approach to communicate in a way that touches people and to use a language that resonates with most.

David Kantor  is an American sociologist who developed a model for interpersonal communication called Structural dynamics, This model was developed through an empirical study of family communication over 35 years ago and has evolved and expanded over time an application to families, couples, teams and whole organizations.

Kantor discovered that next to the stances or positions people take in a dialogue, to move or oppose an idea, there is another ingredient that makes the difference for impact interpersonal communication and this is the Language or the Communication domain. When I use the word language, I  don’t mean English or French. Kantor talks about 3 key languages people understand and use: the language of Power (Action), the language of Meaning (Rational thinking) and the language of Affect (Feelings).

We are all born with a preference and fluency in one of the languages but we are all able to learn the other languages too. People who are fluent in the language of power use words as ‘decide, steps, plan of attack’ etc. A good example of this is the prime minister of Sint Maarten, Silveria Jacobs address: “Simply. Stop. Moving,” she said. “If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat … sardines.” An action based approach for a country with a population of 41,500 people and 2 ICU beds.

Those who are fluent in the language of meaning they will use words like ‘ thinking, reasoning, concept, relevance, etc’. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been hailed for direct but uncharacteristically personal public interventions, warning that up to 70% of people would contract the virus – With a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Merkel’s clear, calm expositions – a clip of her explaining the scientific basis behind the government’s lockdown exit strategy was shared thousands of times online – have also helped propel public approval of the fourth-term chancellor’s handling of the crisis above 70%.

Finally people and leaders who are strong in the language of affect will tend to use word such as ‘passion, caring, feeling, attention, etc. Whilst Arden’s speeches are primarily constructed through the language of affect, she is also using the language of power and action to bring clarity and a call to action.

In short these women leaders are successful because they are building trust and respect rather than fear and control.

I know as a parent to young children there are times when I feel the need to control, currently this is focused on washing hands and understanding the concept of social distancing!

If we are to hold a mirror to our own power/meaning/affect language combination at home or at work, what would we observe? What is effective and what is not? What can we learn from these women leaders to help us communicate more effectively at home?   On that note we’d like to leave you with the following quote and invite you to continue this conversation with us during our next zoom call. On that note we’d like to leave you with the following quote and invite you to continue this conversation with us during our next zoom call.  Enroll for free here: Linkedin event

When: May 14th 2020 Time: 20:00-21:00 Central European Time Via: Zoom Meeting ID: 795 803 0752 Password: 1234

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” ( Lao Tzu)

Authors: Steliana van de Rijt-Economu(leadership executive coach) and Donna de Haan (Associate Professor of Applied Sciences). If we captured your interest join the conversation in our LinkedIn group: Mothers as Leaders learning across borders. 

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