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How experience is framed by the words we choose
The words we use inform our thinking and our actions. They also shape our culture. That’s why my chief goal in my books and my leadership programs is to add fresh words to the vocabulary that readers and clients can use. This helps them think and act in more effective ways.
For example, in Rising Together, I’ve tried to give people alternatives to the self-conscious and rather stiff language that characterizes many diversity and inclusion initiatives. With their continuing emphasis on unconscious biases and perceived microaggressions, these well-intentioned efforts often keep people stuck in identity-based silos.
This can result in people opening even casual conversations with dutiful statements like, “As a straight white Gen-X male, my perspective is…. Or, ” “As a gender-fluid South Asian millennial, I believe…”
Unfortunately, speaking about ourselves as representatives of demographic categories misrepresents the actual richness of our experience– in addition to being alienating and dull. Using vocabulary borrowed from social science also traps us in the prism of self-definition, making it hard to connect with others on a human level. Or to build real relationships with those we perceive as different from ourselves.
One stumbling block is that diverse cultures can activate triggers: It’s not fair! Men get all the good jobs around here! Or: Only women are being promoted! These triggers keep us mired in self-justifying narratives that reinforce a negative mindset.
One way I try to counter these narratives is to advocate “giving others the benefit of our good will.” The wording is important because people often hear it as “giving others the benefit of the doubt.” But doubt is negative, whereas good will is positive, the expression of a large and generous spirit.
In practice, giving others the benefit of our good will enables us to push back against narratives that keep us silo’d. Rather than getting caught up in it’s not fair ruminations, we replace our default story.
For example, instead of assuming that a man, or a woman, landed the job we wanted because of their gender, a more useful narrative might be: “Maybe Carlos got the job because he’s worked with similar clients in the past. I’m going to ask him if he believes this was a factor”
As this story demonstrates, giving others the benefit of our good will offers us a positive way forward by suggesting actions that can move us past resentment and categorization. This is why paying attention to our vocabulary is not just about words.
When I delivered my first full-day Rising Together workshop in Singapore in August, one of the participants emailed me a few weeks later. “Our team now talks constantly about how we’re giving one another the benefit of our good will,” he wrote. “We use the phrase all the time. This might sound like a small thing, but it’s binding us together.”
It does not sound like a small thing at all. Because getting the vocabulary right can be the key to change.
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