Talking power

Have you ever wondered where the power to make things happen actually resides?

Me too.

That’s why I embarked on a PhD. I wanted to learn more about the relationship between language, interaction and conversational dynamics of power.

Who gets to speak, how often and about what topic are related to the way things get done. But how? And how can we influence it? These are the questions that motivate me. Is there is a way of making these subtle dynamics more tangible so everyone can appreciate how powerful hidden patterns of talk really are, then perhaps people would be able to make tiny shifts in language and interaction with the power to transform conversational imbalance.

So recently, when I was challenged by Dynamics of Difference research participants to say what I am learning, it seemed a good time to answer:

I’m learning how power gets talked into place in everyday interactions.

I’m learning what professional women are saying about their experiences of power at work. First, simply being there – being included and present in important interactions without either being excluded, or excluding oneself. Jolanta, a senior analyst in a global professional services firm says, “I want to come out of the place of hiding, behind the numbers, come out and be seen. I know if you’re not seen, you’re not promoted and I want to get some space for myself.”

Then, reflecting on past conversations, on what has been said, what might have being said, and what still remains unspoken, different aspects of being me come under the microscope. Melody, a designer in a country where she still feels very much a foreigner explains, “I need to make my presence felt but not in the local overbearing way. I can’t fake it. I want to be genuine. I want to make things works better but without being uncomfortable and not being myself.”

And finally, being different complicates the issue of what to say and how to say it. Maria, an HR manager for southern Europe reflects, “Non-native speakers have less credibility that they deserve. The best English speakers get their action plans approved. It takes my energy away. It’s not just that the native speakers take over – although they do that a lot. We give up. We sit back and let them get on with it.”

And there is much more to this than meets the eye. The experience of power itself becomes a series of difficult linguistic choices about how to present oneself as a professional, a manager, and a leader.

You want to be there – be seen, heard and present – so should you speak up and say what’s on your mind? What if you speak out of turn? What if speaking makes you too visible? What if you are visible for the ‘wrong’ reasons? Does that undermine your influence? Does that depend on who you are in the first place? How do you strike the right balance?

You want to be yourself, to express who you are, but the norm of business meetings demands a particular way of doing business. A style that for some either doesn’t feel authentic or isn’t effective. So should you be faster, harsher, more direct, aggressive? Would that work? Would that bring you respect? Or can you be yourself, let yourself be softer and more gentle from time to time? Will you still be listened to? Will your voice be heard?

You want to be different  – because you are different –  but you also want to fit in. Not fitting in so much that you lose yourself and what you believe in, but blending enough to be part of the way things get done. But if you are part of the way things get done, can you resist things, really change them? Can you do both? Can you fit in and be different?

These are not straightforward questions.

When what’s at stake is your identity, your self-respect and your influence, making these split second, spur of the moment linguistic choices really counts.

I am moving into a new phase in my research, one in which I will examine such choices in more depth. Working with the data from the project I will be looking at the features the research participants have drawn my attention to: the conversational floor – turn taking and how this is organised, how conversational transitions are sequenced and managed, how (some) people are brought in (or shut out); what people are using language for and how well they achieve their goals – how they agree and disagree, interrupt, stay silent, attend to politeness, directness, and appropriacy.

These features and more, influence the course of a conversation and so influence what gets heard, what gets done and who gets to take the decisions. Try watching out for them. If we are more aware of linguistic features and conversational patterns, we have more choices about being present, authentic and different – and successful – even though it happens at the speed of light.



2 thoughts on “Talking power”

  1. Hello Anne,
    nice blog post. Just to repeat that “the conversational floor – turn taking and how this is organised, how conversational transitions are sequenced and managed, how (some) people are brought (or shut out)” are not linguistic but conversational features.

    See you tonight,

    Dr Veronika Koller
    Reader in Discourse Studies
    Department of Linguistics and English Language
    Lancaster University
    Lancaster LA1 4YL
    United Kingdom

    We are all clever. Distinguish yourself by being kind.


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