Why Linguistics?

I want to start by answering the question I have been asked so many times since I began my research programme: why Linguistics?

Colleagues and friends in management, and in my field of leadership and organisation development, are curious as to why I decided to go in this direction. It is more common to turn to ideas from psychology, learning or systems for explanations of behaviour, and for ideas about how to do things differently.

This week Daniele Fiandaca co-founder of Token Man, published on “Diversity at Work” in the Guardian, Women in Leadership. He writes convincingly of the importance of unconscious bias and goes on to give great advice about going against that bias. He ends, “Finally, ensure that you have built an environment where everyone can thrive and have a voice within the business.” Absolutely. And what more can we do to make it possible for some to speak out and others to listen more?

As professional women we strive for inclusivity, opportunity and diversity in our organisations. We know that who gets to speak and whose proposals are heard translate directly into action and influence; and of course, we are acutely aware that being silenced is tantamount to being sidelined. And yet we all slip into routines of interaction which militate against our being able to achieve our goals. We get stuck in our own patterns of conversation.

So why Linguistics?

Simply this: by seeing through the surface talk to the mechanisms beneath, we can slow this process down sufficiently to see how seemingly little things like whose turn it is to speak, can change the course of a conversation. By turning to Linguistics we can understand who gets to interrupt, who gets to change the subject, who gets to disagree and who has no choice but to agree – and we can learn to influence this process.

Across the desk and around the meeting table power is granted, gained and given away in the moves and nuances of interaction. A more thorough grasp of how power is mediated through talk is crucial to understanding one’s influence and impact.

It is important if you find yourself with less power in your professional conversations than you would like. Perhaps being a non-native speaker of English means you stay silent because you are too fearful of being impolite or of exposing your true language level; maybe you are a woman executive in an all male C-suite who longs to drop the speaking style she’s had to use to get where she is; or perhaps you are one of the many women leaders and managers who wants to exercise her power more effectively.

And it is just as important if you are used to having more of the power. If you are a native speaker of English for example, it is hard to imagine the extra power you wield simply by having been born into the conversational rules of the game. Or if you are a manager determined to be a more inclusive leader, it can be difficult to see the patterns of interaction – and this usually means it is the same people who do the speaking.

So here’s a technique for you to try out. It helps everyone see how your team manages the crucial question of whose turn it is.

Take whatever small markers you have to hand (counters, coins, paper clips, sugar lumps, or as I do, your children’s discarded building bricks) and the next time you have a team meeting, put a pile in the centre of the table and tell everyone, “Every time you take a turn, take a brick”… or a sugar lump or paper clip or coin…

Are you leading inclusively? Put yourself to the test. Peel back the top layer of the meeting table to reveal the clockwork below.


Interested in Daniele’s article?


Photos: Rubianca Photography  (www.rubianca.com)

Images: www.freeimages.co.uk


2 thoughts on “Why Linguistics?”

  1. Most heartily agree. In the old old days (1985, University of Texas at Austin) my PhD linguistics dissertation was about comparing the conversational strategies used by two employment counselors as they tried to place foreigners in job openings. The more successful counselor acknowledged and integrated what was in the foreigner’s speaking turn into his own subsequent turn. The other counselor just shot question after question without referring much to what the foreigner said in his/her preceding speaking turn. So yes indeed, linguistics can be added to psychology to become more self-aware of what is happening “behind the scenes” of the words and silences that take place during high-stakes discussions.


    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Karen. It’s so often the case that we are the ones to want to get our point across, we forget what we know about making room for others.


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