Provision #704: Words Matter

Laser Provision

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the sword always incites the pen. Words, words, words. In the wake of the Arizona rampage: words. In the wake of the 9-11 attacks: words. In the wake of every act of violence, in every culture, throughout all of human history: words. Ironically, the more “unspeakable” the violence the more words it generates. What can we learn about leadership from the words that are now being written and spoken about civility and public discourse? What are our responsibilities? What difference can we make? How can strong feelings be expressed without making situations worse? If those questions speak to you, then read on. The words in this Provision might shed some light on the subject.

LifeTrek Provision

It is ironic that I wrote my last Provision, Actions Matter, on the same day as the tragic shootings and violence in Tucson, Arizona. While I was writing about the importance to leadership of walking the talk and modeling life-giving practices in both our daily routines as well as our interactions with others, someone else was taking action so as to raise the same issue in much more painful and cacophonous ways.

In the wake of what happened in Arizona•where a 22-year-old man shot 19 people, including two government officials, killing 6 and wounding 13 before being subdued by bystanders’there has been a steady stream of words regarding how to make sense of and learn from the tragedy. Violent actions always provoke such words, and this incident has proved to be no different.

Two extremes quickly rose to the foreground in the sea of words. On the one hand, the killer was quickly labeled as “mentally ill,” “deranged,” or “evil.” Such labeling absolves everyone else of responsibility. The killer was crazy•end of story. On the other hand, the killer was quickly labeled as “provoked,” “misguided,” or “inflamed.” Such labeling absolves the killer of responsibility. Our rhetoric was bloodthirsty•end of story.

Neither version does justice to the truth yet both versions offer constructive considerations for those of us involved in leadership positions. Let’s consider both, in turn.

How easy it is to write off someone as being “sick, evil, crazy, or stupid.” By so doing, we are completely absolved of responsibility for whatever happens. This strategy has been used across the millennia to explain deviant behaviors or to rationalize standard behaviors that inflict pain and suffering on others.

  • It was used to explain serial killers: they were pigeonholed as psychopaths.
  • It was used to explain slavery: slaves were portrayed as less than human.
  • It was used to explain religious persecution: infidels were cast as being under the spell of the devil.
  • It was used to explain sexism: women were viewed as being too stupid to vote or lead men.
  • It was used to explain discrimination: homosexuals were diagnosed as having a treatable condition.
  • It was used to explain the civil rights movement: Dr. King, whose birthday America now celebrates as a national holiday, was labeled derisively as a communist.

We could certainly keep that list going ad infinitum. Whenever we want to make ourselves comfortable with the uncomfortable, it’s both convenient and common to fall back on words that dehumanize and demonize people. When we label people as being “sick, evil, crazy, or stupid,” we’re done with soul searching. We have discharged our responsibility, putting it all on them.

Fortunately, for the sake of human history, that is never the whole story and often not even a true story. People are people, with universal feelings and needs. The more we try to understand those feelings and needs with respect and appreciation, the more we contribute to life-giving schools, workplaces, communities, and societies.

But it’s hard to find those words in the face of opposition. It’s easier to dismiss people than to deal with them respectfully. Even when someone is just not doing what we want them to do, it’s easier for leaders to deride or dismiss them than to deal with them as having merit and worth. Once people cause problems, let alone once they violate norms or standards, the temptation to treat them dismissively is even greater.

Noticing how such treatment leads to increasing hostility and difficulty is what led Marshall Rosenberg to develop the process known as Nonviolent Communication, or “NVC” for short. NVC is not about being nice. It’s not about ignoring or accepting life-denying behavior. It is rather about finding constructive ways to understand and communicate about what is going on, especially when behaviors are not to our liking or that we find unacceptable.

What happened in Arizona is unacceptable. It’s tempting to write off the killer as “sick, evil, crazy, or stupid.” But even killers have feelings and needs. Chances are, they were dark and unmet for a very long time. Who knows if NVC could have released the killer from his pain in ways that might have avoided his violent outburst. That may be too much to ask, but it’s not too much to contemplate.

As leaders, most of us deal with much more manageable situations. The intensity of the feelings and the twisting of the needs in most organizations are much less toxic. It behooves us, then, even more to give people the benefit of the doubt and to search for common ground. Instead of deriding or dismissing the people we work with, what if we sought to understand their experience and to respect their needs?

Such life-affirming orientations hold out the promise of working through difficulties and bringing out the best in people. Which are, of course, two primary tasks of leadership.

That does not mean, however, that every situation can be salvaged were leaders to only find the right words. That represents the other lesson from all the words that have have been spawned by the violence in Tucson. The calls for civility in public discourse are welcome and should be heeded by one and all. Such calls go too far, however, when they draw a direct line of cause-and-effect.

I, for one, think it is very problematic when we demonize our enemies and use violent images or metaphors to talk about our agenda. Words matter, and when we talk that way, there will be consequences. Did such talk cause that young man in Tucson to go berserk? No one will ever know, but probably not.

Leaders must be careful, then, to not only choose our words deliberately but also to not take on too much responsibility for other people’s behavior. We walk a fine line. We cause problems when we start to view or label people as any variation on the theme of “sick, evil, crazy, or stupid”. We also cause problems, however, when we think that our words and actions are the only factors that matter.

It really is OK to say the wrong thing once in a while. People are human and always find it difficult to express ourselves fully and constructively when our emotions are stirred up. That’s as true for leaders as it is for anyone else. The key is to become a reflective leader, such that we are aware of our contribution to problems and open to apologizing for our mistakes. Once that attitude and those words are in the mix, new possibilities are soon to follow.

Unfortunately, it has become almost impossible for leaders to apologize in the public arena. Most view apologies as a sign of weakness that would somehow undermine the effectiveness of their bully pulpits. The few who have offered apologies for their vitriolic contributions to the culture wars in America have been viewed with suspicion, as though they were trying to shame their opponents into doing the same.

Such attacks and posturing do not bring out the best in people. As leaders, we would do well to communicate respectfully and constructively at all times’treating people as people even when we don’t like what they are doing•and to apologize genuinely and clearly when our words fall short of the mark. We would do well to communicate with NVC.

The problem we have with words is well captured by the character Rodolphe Bolanger in Madame Bovary: “None of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.” 

The limitations of our words notwithstanding, it is the task of leadership to choose our words well. Our words can get us in trouble, but they can also get us out of trouble. Our words can hurt and our words can heal. The more fully we learn to speak words of peace, especially in times of difficulty and stress, the greater our leadership will be.

Coaching Inquiries: How much attention do you pay to your words? Do your words communicate understanding and respect for the feelings and needs of others? Do they authentically communicate your own feelings and needs in ways that build people up or tear people down? How could you become a more constructive communicator? What is one step you could take in that direction today?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Your last Provision, Actions Matter, and a recent FB post by Doug Autenrieth, reminds me of a wonderful saying that my dear friend, Minx Boren, has introduced me to. “You’re actions are speaking so loud that I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Minx credits Ralph Waldo Emerson with that expression.

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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