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.


Leading a balanced conversation

“It’s only a simple brainstorm – it isn’t a power thing – everyone gets to speak.”

Do they?

The Dynamics of Difference participants think otherwise.

Imagine the scene. You’ve gathered your team together to inject some energy into your initiative.  You run a multi-national team, most of your meetings are virtual so it’s important to make the best of being in the same room together.

Let’s make the best of this opportunity,” you say. “I’d like us to share our thoughts about really getting some energy behind this initiative. So, what do you all think? Let’s share some ideas. I’ll capture them; go ahead.

A speaks for her department’s pet plan

B spots this, answers her and (very subtly) disagrees

A counters – the subtle disagreement was so not very subtle after all

B draws breath…

You “Thank you. Let’s have some different ideas.”

A ten second silence which feels like half an hour

You “What’s your take on this C?”

C speaks quietly about a third position

A counters

B counters A

A disagrees

You intervene…

And so it goes on. Participants D to G [from southern Europe] eventually get a word in, but participants H to J [from Pacific rim countries] don’t say anything.

This is not only a question of native speaker fluency and communicative competence (although that matters, of course), it is also about what we consider to be normal and unremarkable about the way we converse, or hold a meeting, or do a quick brainstorm of ideas. We tend to see these mechanisms as completely transparent and value free. This is because we take the norms for granted

Let’s take an example.

Everyone knows how to do a brainstorm. It is intended as a participative way of leading a meeting in which it is possible to make more space for more people to speak out and have their ideas heard. Indeed, most of us would be able to take up the pen and would know when the rules are not being followed.

Here’s how it usually works:

  • Someone takes the pen and invites others to offer up ideas freely (no judgement or argument allowed);
  • All the ideas are of equal value – the aim is to get the ideas flowing;
  • When everyone has said what they would like to say, everyone in the group makes sense of what is recorded.

Or at least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, having everyone make sense of what has been recorded is not so straight forward. This is because in fact, the rules don’t guarantee that everyone is heard in equal measure or interpreted in the same way. Some people are given (or take) more turns than others; and some do not make their voices heard at all.

We observe these patterns of interaction and assign possible meanings to them. It can be inferred, for example, that someone who does not speak has nothing to say; or it may be assumed that members of the group do not want to hear what they imagine she has to say – or any number of other social meanings that can be assigned to this pattern.

Similarly, a brainstorm participant who dominates the conversational floor by taking every opportunity to speak may be read as a strong leader, a domineering team member, or a native speaker of English, depending on a whole range of contextual factors including the perspectives, interests and political agendas of everyone else involved.

In fact, your average brainstorm can turn out to be a conversation where the person with the pen holds the power to decide who gets to speak. The same old loud voices get heard, and the record of what was said is skewed in favour of one or other department, one or other point of view. People shout out their ideas and perspectives from the point of view of their individual and group interests – and then jockey for position in the overall “product” of the brainstorm – because we all know that the record counts.

So what if the record was more inclusive? How might we do that? Bearing in mind that absolutely nothing is value free, we might imagine different rules with different effects.

Imagine, for example, that after generating a board full of ideas you ask, “OK, so I’d like to invite the different groups here (marketing, sales, finance, engineering…or whatever) to choose five of these ideas on behalf of the whole group – the things that matter most to everyone here.”

You’d probably witness another of those silences that seems like half an hour.

People are not accustomed to being asked to articulate what might be in the interests of other groups. More frequently we imagine the question of what is in the interests of the whole group to mean just my group. The fact that most groups can’t do this exercise is because they don’t actually know what the other groups see as priority issues.

So what needs to happen next?

People need to ask each other a limited number of very carefully crafted questions. If, when the groups call out their priorities (after having listened very carefully to what the others have to say), you choose to circle the important priorities of each group in a different colour of marker pen, you will see where the groups’ interests diverge and overlap.

That’s actually the common ground – a place we often can’t see because the accepted, unchallenged patterns of conversation obscure our view. And unless we call these out, the exclusionary processes and effects that go with them, will also remain invisible.


Are you visible enough?

Without a doubt, if you attend meeting after meeting and always end up with the impression that you are neither seen nor heard, then its easy to conclude that that you need to learn to be more forceful, more visible. And if you spend a great deal of your time leading meetings in which some people fail to engage or refuse to speak out, it’s easy to conclude that the fault lies with them. After all, they also believe that the fault lies with them.

Take Lorena, an experienced marketing manager for a global manufacturing company. She reflects:

“I feel that because I do not have seniority, my comments are not welcome. I feel like I lack influence – and I’m not sure if it’s because of my experience or because I’m not able to get my ideas through. I used to be extroverted and outgoing – but I am trying to change that. I want to be different – to speak less – to get my ideas through, but … I never really know when I’m taking too much or not enough!”

Lorena believes that she is the one with the problem.

Interactional difficulties are experienced individually, so we shouldn’t be too surprised if solutions to such problems are aimed at individuals too. And of course there is nothing wrong with working on empowering oneself to make more or better contributions – people need to feel that they have the power to make a change which will allow them to have more influence, be a better manager, take up the power of their role more effectively.

But there is a trap in this sort of thinking. It smooths over the contradictions of how people actually experience power (or the lack of it) in their workplace conversations. It over-simplifies the causes and the solutions, and robs teams of difference – different perspectives, different values and different ways of addressing problems and finding solutions.

As part of the Dynamics of Difference research I have spent a long time reading and re-reading the written reflections of the sixty professional women participants whose struggles to understand their own contradictory relationship with visibility and power, point to the need for a more nuanced understanding of the perennial challenge of getting heard in meetings.

So let’s take a closer look at the contradictions of visibility and power.

First there is good visibility. You see yourself as relatively powerless – perhaps because your English is not so good, or because you are a woman in male dominated firm, or because you are from the European south and not its powerful north – or a whole host of other reasons that mean it seems harder for you to make your mark. You are invisible. In this case invisibility equals powerlessness; visibility brings you power. Joana reflects:

“The environment is highly competitive and the interactions are important for all of the professionals in the meetings. I need to give visibility to the successes and challenges of my teams – and to increase my own profile so senior managers are aware of my achievements. But I sometimes feel that I cannot contribute to the conversation or be taken seriously enough because of the way I speak. I often struggle to be heard.

Then there is bad visibility. You are different (your age, race, gender, culture, sexuality, nationality) and being different makes you stand out from the norm. But you don’t want to stand out because that weakens your power. You have to be seen as one of them in order to make your mark. You are too visible. In this case visibility equals powerlessness; invisibility brings you power. Teresa says:

“It is difficult to be seen as senior as I am. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I don’t like it to look like I don’t have enough knowledge when really, it’s just a language problem. The main question is about expressing myself with enough seniority among peers who are mainly all native speakers. Getting the language wrong means they start treating you differently, like they think you aren’t up to it, or they don’t fully trust you.”

Both perceptions are present in my data, in fact both are present in the same person, and even in the same breath.

Pamela knows she’s young to have reached a relatively high position in her lawn firm. She also knows it’s because her clients are very happy with her work, and on a one-to-one basis she has no problem getting her ideas across and holding her ground. In meetings with senior partners though, she sometimes can’t break through. She explains:

“In meetings, knowing when to speak to generate good impact can be a problem. I am 31 years old, and I might even look a little younger, so sometimes I have the feeling that the older professionals don’t take me as seriously as they should. Recently I was at the negotiating table with a partner from our firm, but the way the counterpart spoke back made me think that he wasn’t taking me seriously. He only wanted to address his remarks to the partner from our firm, and never directly to me. He didn’t even look at me.”

She felt invisible and yet she reflects:

“I want to sound like them – to sound more serious – to be taken more seriously”

What Pamela wants is to blend right in, to become “one of them”, and the way she sees she can do this most effectively is by altering the way she interacts. She wants to be seen and to be invisible.

This is odd, is it not?  Surely we can untangle what’s good and what’s bad. But Pamela’s experience is not unique – many feel this contradiction. They experience good and bad visibility, power and powerlessness, hand in hand, both at once. And because there isn’t a ready way to make sense of such tensions and contradictions, the cocktail of good and bad visibility gets mixed up in conversations and mixed up in your mind. Then, instead of opening the issues up and talking about them with others, we account for our individual experiences and feelings with self-criticism and off the shelf self-help explanations.

But when we focus too hard on personal weaknesses and individual solutions, we overlook the more structural aspects of experience, and in particular, the incredible power of the conversational norm. Our workplace conversations follow predictable and fairly stable patterns which conceal the norms and values within them. These norms can over-ride our surface awareness of fairness and inclusivity precisely because we take conversational patterns so much for granted (it’s how you “do” a brainstorm, or a case review or a board meeting or whatever) and because of this, the exclusionary processes and effects also remain invisible.

So what does this have to do with being visible, powerful and effective at work?

It reminds us that changing practice is a collective effort. This is not to say that we should give up trying to figure out how our own thinking and behaviour is both part of the problem and the solution. Everyone can work on themselves, of course. But that can’t be the end of it – because the thing about conversations is that there is always more than one person involved.

Picture a whirlpool of conversational practices. The norm has a very powerful pull.

So if we really want to make our professional conversations more inclusive, we have to tackle the whirlpool. If we don’t, we will end up talking about the value of difference, but doing it in a way which values sameness.



Was that too direct?

Or not direct enough?  Or too strong? Too soft? Too abrupt? Too nice? Too meek? Or too bossy?

The reflections of the participants of the Dynamics of Different project are full of questions such as these. As they reflect on their power and influence at work they ask themselves if they are speaking with enough authority, if their their conversational behaviour is getting them the results they seek. Here are just a few of their reflections:

Maria has been told that she is too forceful…

Spanish speakers are very direct and I use the expressions and words I know. Sometimes I am perceived as “too direct” or “too strong”. One can feel so stupid – and then this gets reinforced in the conversation because others treat you differently.

… and Rebecca thinks she isn’t forceful enough….

You don’t want to use words that may sound impolite or too strong but you don’t want to be too soft either. Between one and the other, I would choose being soft, and that’s what makes me fail.

…and Ana wonders which is the right way to go.

It’s hard for me to speak with diplomacy, without sounding too abrupt. I found out recently that I was being paid less than U.K. colleagues. But how do you bring that up? You don’t want to be too aggressive, or too meek!

All three women are senior executives in their respective companies. On the outside they are calm, collected and very much in charge. On the inside though, they are thinking through how they sound; paying attention to each sentence. And if senior women are deep in thought about how to “sound senior”, what is happening at the start of some women’s careers?

Alexandra gives us a glimpse:

Five years ago when I started work I was generally more confident and aggressive. I was better than my peers. But I got negative feedback from my bosses that my peers didn’t like me; that they felt threatened. I was the “bad” character. I’ve gone the other way though now. I am too cautious.

And yet at the other extreme, learning the language of the “top 200” suggests that aggression is precisely what is needed as Susana points out:

The corporate executive level is extremely political (which you would expect) but also aggressive. Everybody challenges everything. You need to be convincing but in a very fast way, to the point – people lose their patience very quickly.

What is happening here? Why so much focus on being direct? Are we simply not assertive enough?

As a working woman of a certain vintage I entered management at the same time as assertiveness training. For those of you who don’t remember this, assertiveness training comprises a number of scripts that people (usually women) can follow to help them communicate in a direct, honest way which is neither aggressive nor passive. Over the years many of these techniques have been seamlessly integrated into the general management communication toolkit. And they can be very useful indeed –  “broken record” to stick to your point; or “fogging” as a technique for handling critical aggressive attacks. The foundation stone of assertive communication is directness. Say it – say clearly and directly – no hedges, ifs, buts, justs or sorries. Work out your position, how you feel, what you want, and say it.

So far so good.

It is also true to say that there are many different ways of expressing the same basic idea, and some are linguistically speaking, weaker than others. Let’s say for argument’s sake that you have been asked your opinion about a proposal. You can choose how strong a position to take and reflect this in different ways.

You might think it’s a ridiculous proposal and you are not afraid to say so directly, “That’s a a ridiculous proposal!” or indirectly, “I have seen better proposals”.

Maybe you love it and will put all your weight behind it. You could say, “Great. I’m with you all the way on that!” Or if your personal style is not in keeping with over enthusiastic displays of agreement, you might choose a more indirect route and say, “You can count on me.

Or perhaps you are not sure what you think yet – you need more information and you need to know where the support lies in your peer group. You might be tempted to hedge your bets and introduce an element of uncertainty into your answer, “It depends. We may need more information.

The point is that you have options and depending on the people, the task and the context – you might choose to be more or less direct, more or less certain. And it is good to get some practice in going up and down the scales of directness and modality so when you need linguistic precision it is at your fingertips.

But before I generate a twitter storm of English language specialists pointing out, and quite rightly, that there’s more to modality and indirectness that this, let me take this in a different direction and explore why being direct doesn’t solve everything. If the research participants want to “sound more senior” it is because exercising power is complicated if you are a) not a native speaker of English and b) you are a woman. And their concerns – that they sound either too weak, or too bossy – come in from both directions.

Yet my early assertiveness training manuals offered the same advice to both. How can this be? If a particular style of conversational behaviour worked normatively as a sort of “one-size-fits-all” management speak, then the concerns of my research participants would be easy to fix. And indeed, the scripts of assertiveness are often helpful. They give people a way of doing things differently, trying out a new discursive strategy and learning from how well it worked by reflecting on what happened.

And that’s great – but there are many more layers to this.

Let’s peel a few back and see if we can catch sight of some of the more subtle aspects of communicating with (or without) authority and power. I will return to these in more detail in the future so for now, these are just glimpses…

First national cultures. People do things differently in different parts of the world, and even different parts of the same country. That seems pretty obvious, but it is surprising how many otherwise seasoned professionals act as if they think their way is the best. Being “direct” may be a source of pride in some cultures, and shame in others.

Different positions have linguistic consequences. Whether one chooses to say, “I want that done by the end of the day” or, “It would help me to have those figures in tomorrow’s meeting” is influenced by how much power your interlocutor has, how much power you think you have, how much power you think your interlocutor thinks you have, how speaking with respect manifests itself in your “home” culture, how you have learned you need to speak in order for things to get done in your company…and whether or not you are a woman or a man.

So gender. It isn’t that women speak a different language then men do [and I promise to unpack that little bundle of fun in a future post], it is about our expectations of how men and women speak, and in some cases our expectations of how men and women should speak. Women face an extra burden of linguistic work that men don’t get to appreciate. They are faced with a no-win double bind where if they speak too assertively they are negatively judged as women “trying to act like a man”, and if they speak too indirectly, or “softly”, they are negatively judged as leaders and managers for being weak and ineffective.

And then there’s linguistic disadvantage. There is no doubt that being a native English speaker is a huge advantage in the corporate world. The clipped, direct and to the point corporate (let’s face it, North American) style of doing business and conducting meetings is the norm. And this norm, just like the norms of culture and gender, is kept in place by a complex web of ideas and ways of viewing the world, which help keep such things hidden. Like Alexandra, and Ana, Rebecca, Maria and Susana, we only realise that we have broken an unspoken rule or crossed an invisible line when we sense we are being sanctioned.

And let’s not kid ourselves – women hold each other to these expectations too.

Food for thought for the summer break.



What makes a decision stick?

The decision of the British people to leave the EU has left a fragmented nation and a population divided between elation, devastation and regret. The UK press reports financial, political and constitutional confusion; a leadership vacuum with no one “at the helm” and no direction.

A decision has been taken but no one can do anything with it.

We have been witness to a democratic process, but also a dangerous one. The divisive campaign has legitimised intolerance and taken the lid off differences hitherto contained by the unspoken rules of society. There are divisions in two major parties, between north and south, between the nations of the United Kingdom, between generations, and between colleagues, friends and family members.

A decision has been taken but it not yet clear if it will stick.

The Brexit story reminds us that a majority decision, democratically taken does not mean action.  It also reminds us that waiting for the illusive inclusive leader to take us out of the mess means we could be in for a pretty long wait.

Brexit is chaos writ large on a world stage, but the practices are not so unfamiliar, as many of the Dynamics of Difference research participants have been only too keen to point out. Calls for unity accompanied by scheming and backstabbing; decisions taken behind closed doors and played out democratically for show; half-truths instead of honesty; bullying in place of leadership; and long drawn out processes of securing apparent agreement which lead precisely nowhere.

Take Maria’s story:

I currently work in an American-European multi-national and English is the common language for meetings and communications. Discussions, which are often over the phone, take place with people from the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and Spain. As an example of what I want to discuss, one initial meeting was to agree on a classification of a type of professional service. This classification had impact on delivery resources and revenue recognition between two different teams from different business units. Opinions were opposed between these two teams and my role, as part of a central team, was to be responsible for making the final decision.

Because of the nature of the decision and its impact, the discussions took place over several meetings. During each meeting, each team would describe their position but there would not be any real debate. Sometimes it seemed like participants were not listening to one another, and that it was perceived as a win-loose situation, and no one wanted to loose. Also, because the meetings took place over the phone, there were quite a lot of interruptions and misunderstandings. 

After four or five meetings my team took a decision and formally communicated that to all stakeholders. But one year later I have found out that not everyone “agreed” with that decision, and that the discussion still seems to be open. This feels very unsatisfactory as a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to get the best decision.

As with Brexit, Maria found that when there is no clear way of hearing dissenting voices and no way of working together in spite of these differences, agreements may not be what they seem. If we treat differences themselves as the root cause of conflict, then obviously, we will try to minimise them. This leaves us in the untenable position of trying to value diversity by getting rid of it.

But as Brexit reminds us, programmes of inclusivity which hear some of the people some of the time might be in for a nasty surprise.

Let’s look again at the way we interact at work, and at the conversations we call decisions. When people with differing beliefs, needs and interests come together to decide how to proceed two things frequently happen. First, they carefully manage their contributions to the conversational floor to create and maintain as much agreement as possible. This usually means there is insufficient robust questioning of motives and interests. And second, when a consensus does not emerge more or less naturally, they put it to the vote.

And as we have seen a majority does not guarantee a sound decision. 51.9% of the British electorate voted “Leave” – a decision that will change the face of Europe for decades to come. No one in the rest of the EU had a voice.

When the situation is really serious and a great deal is at stake, we need to look at temporarily changing the “rules” of decision making so that more voices can be heard and everyone involved can see the common ground. We need a conversation where different views can be expressed and decisions can be taken which translate into people taking responsibility for making sure things happen.

For this we have the Decision Circle

First let’s shake up two mistaken assumptions:

  1. That once something is agreed publicly, then the decision is taken and action will follow
  2. That everyone has to see things the same way before agreement can be reached

Now let’s play around with the patterns of interaction:

Next time you want to make sure you have really heard different views when your group has to take a decision, give everyone two index cards and ask them to write two things they want to see or make happen. Have them sit around an empty table and read out what’s on their cards, one at a time, putting the cards in a central pace on the table. No questions, no comments and, apart from the reading of cards, no speaking.

Here’s the tricky part – if people think that what is written on the card is doable now (i.e. there is no need to push or fix anyone or anything in order for the activity to happen) then the card gets left on the table. If on the other hand, someone believes that this is not doable, then he or she should lean over and take the card out. There may be many reasons to remove a card but at the first reading, these do not need to be declared. The only speaking is the reading of cards.

When all the cards have been read, some will still be in the centre while others will be near the person who removed them. Typically, the ones in the centre are the lowest common denominator ideas and not much is at stake. This means of course, that the important proposals are not yet on the table and some negotiating needs to take place.

To lead an inclusive process of negotiation, a little more of the motives and interests of the speaker need to be shared. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is too risky. In fact, even when motives are not declared, people read them loud and clear.

Take the example of the phone and the bath. You are baking in the kitchen, your hands are covered in sticky dough and the phone goes. “That’s the phone” you say.  And you mean, “I want you to pick it up” and incidentally, “I’m the person round here who can tell you what to do.”  From a distant room your partner shouts, “I’m in the bath!” meaning, “You’ll have to pick it up yourself” and incidentally, “You’re not telling me what to do!”

And all that’s been said is, “That’s the phone!” and “I’m in the bath!”

So encourage people to reveal a bit more than usual about what’s behind what they say – you’ll be surprised at how much care they take to honour people’s views and preferences – and when something is just not going to happen, it’s better to know it up front rather than waste weeks or months of manoeuvring for nothing.

Slowly, people begin to see that if they change their cards a little, more and more can make it’s way to the centre, to the space that is for proposals that are doable now – meaning that no one in that decision circle will stop it. All that remains is for someone to take responsibility for the activity by picking up the card – and if no one picks it up, well it was never going to happen anyway!

This exercise needs power, awareness and the ability to speak and to listen as an equal. Uncovering differences, exploring dissent and heading off veto take more than a little courage. But it is a lot more effective than moving the deckchairs around on a sinking ship.

Being interrupted

In the course of my work I am frequently asked, “Is there anything I can do to stop them interrupting me when I’m speaking?”

“Who?” I usually ask.

“Native speakers”… “Senior men”… or  “The team from Head Office” they frequently answer.

What do these groups have in common? We will return to this question. First, let’s explore the experience of interruption.

You are in a normal, everyday management meeting with your peers.  The formal agenda is complete and you are discussing your views on an aspect of a deal. You have an important point to make. You’ve done your homework. You are waiting for an opportunity to bring it up. You take the conversational floor, and you begin to introduce the theme when someone else politely “just” has a comment to make and the conversation veers off. You hold your thought in your head a while, waiting for the opportunity to return to the topic without showing unacceptable levels of disrespect to the current speakers. All this means of course, that you aren’t really listening to them; you are really only listening for a tiny break in the flow, a space just big enough for you to go back to what you were trying to say earlier…

…when someone else says it for you. As if by magic someone in this “other” group (native speakers, senior men, the folk from Boston or Paris or Rome) picks up your theme and claims it as their own.

What happened? You were assertive, concise, clear. Your English may not have been perfect but it was certainly good enough. What gives people the right to do that? What can you do to resist and return?

Take Silvana for example. Silvana is a partner in a professional services firm. She is an acknowledged expert in the industry and commands enviable respect from her internationally dispersed team. Why is it then, she asks herself, that when she is in a meeting with more senior colleagues her contributions sometimes go unheard? And most frustrating of all, why is it that she says something which appears to go unnoticed only to be picked up by someone else a little later in the meeting, and this time the idea is taken up enthusiastically, heralded as the idea of the meeting.

In part, Silvana recognises that her lack of a strong command of English stops her from taking a more proactive position in raising her points and making suggestions.

She explains, “My lack of confidence in my English fluency prevents me from taking advantage of the conversation with top managers when they visit. This under-confident feeling means I usually prefer to shut up and take a back row place where I lose the opportunity for visibility. But then sometimes they tell me I am been too strong and sound aggressive…

So which is it? On the one hand her style means she often goes unnoticed; and on the other, she believes because she hasn’t got the right words, she interrupts too quickly and therefore sounds angry.

If we take the popular line that Silvana is not assertive enough, or that her language is somehow  weaker than those whose ideas are picked up, we inevitably end up finding fault with her. If instead we take a step back and use Linguistics to reflect on the event, we can think about the problem differently.

Take the notion of conversational rights and obligations, a common concept in a range of linguistic theories and perspectives. In different settings, different speakers have different rights which are recognised and taken up as an integral part of the interaction. (Think doctor-patient, teacher-pupil). Most episodes of spoken interaction follow “the rules” and the speakers in them take up their roles without thought or question.

The issue then becomes how we recognise what is appropriate, how we are able to know what to contribute and when.

To take an extreme example, last week I went to the theatre – three and a half hours of a powerful and moving interpretation of King Lear. The audience was (of course) silent. No one said, “Can I just come in here?” or “Actually, I think we need to go back the idea I introduced at the start.” Members of such an audience don’t have the right to interrupt.

At the other end of the scale is a family dinner where children, parents and grandparents are gathered. People speak over one another, they tend not to get offended if they are interrupted and are just as likely to fall silent to listen to the very youngest member of the family as they are to listen to Grandma.

There is no single rule covering interruption. Getting it right depends on familiarity with the activity, its setting, and on reading the situation using the subtle social, cultural and conversational skills you have developed through exposure, experience and the slow process of trial and error. And the truth is you already know when you are able to interrupt. Given the right setting and the right relationships you do it without a second thought.

Getting it wrong though is like speaking out in the middle of a play.

A standard, everyday management meeting may follow familiar interaction rules but it is never a level playing field. It is influenced by culture, by gender and by status – things like hierarchy, expertise, and social class. Now we can return to native speakers, senior men and the folk from Head Office. The conversational entitlements of these higher status individuals can rarely  be questioned in practice, and it is in the subtleties of these interactions that our biases about gender, culture and status play out.

As a leader it falls to you to becomes more aware of these rules and to use your influence to challenge them. Reflect on the subtle implications of conversational rights and obligations  in your interactions and set up your meetings with these in mind. Make it clear that interruption is unwelcome, and keep your own eye and ear on the contributions of those who in some way might be seen to belong to a group whose status is somehow higher (or lower) than the rest.  Doodle a small circle of dots on your notepad – the same number of dots as participants – and circle the contributors who seem to do the interrupting.  Like watching sunlight in a forest, a pattern will emerge. Is this the pattern you want? If not, call it out. The chances are that this behaviour is felt by individuals but not seen by the group. If you make it more visible, you give group the opportunity to develop new patterns, slightly different rights and subtly altered obligations.

As professional women we do ourselves a crippling disservice when we judge our (richly diverse) ways of speaking as the main reason we go unnoticed or are open to unwelcome interruption. Conversational rights and obligations work in the interaction between us, and it is between us that the changes must take place.

Expressing power politely


Have you ever felt undermined, acutely aware of the delicate balance of power in conversation as it shifts? Have you felt puzzled, locked out, or just unable to exert the influence that by rights, you feel you should have? And have you asked yourself, “Is it me? Am I being too soft? Too indirect? Not assertive enough? Something else that I can never quite put my finger on?”

You are not alone.

The top topic of concern for the (women) participants of the “Dynamics of Difference” research is a very particular puzzle about expressing authority. Many of the research stories tell of a complex and uneasy relationship with power. Surprisingly for a group dynamic, powerful women, the topic of powerlessness sits menacingly at the back of the room.

But power is not something we “have”, it is something we “do” – and it is a two-way street. We do power in relationship and in conversation with other people. Can insights from Linguistics help reframe our experience? Can it help us step more smoothly into our power?

Expressing your power and feeling powerless are not “good and bad” opposites of doing leadership – they are different aspects of the same interactional moments. These are the smallest of conversational moves, the finest of calibrations.

Take Elizabeth, “thirty-something” external relations manager for the marketing arm of a big multi-national, who is puzzled and troubled by an uncomfortable relationship with one of her direct reports. Lucy is an experienced woman in her fifties on (fairly permanent) loan from another part of the company and from a different cultural background, but as far as Elizabeth is concerned, this doesn’t explain why she contemptuously sidesteps her every request, no matter how directly or firmly she makes it.

Elizabeth says things like, “Thanks for the report, Lucy. It mostly covers the bases, but you might like to take another look at this section on regulatory powers.”

Lucy rarely responds, and when she does it is only to explain why her approach is fine – in effect to resist the suggestion, which as far as Elizabeth is concerned, is less of a suggestion and more of a polite directive. What is going on here?

There is certainly no shortage of popular explanations keen to point out the need for women managers to be assertive, direct (masculine?), and to remove the supposedly tentative, indirect (feminine?) ways of speaking. If we are constantly reminded that a gentler style of management is weak and ineffective, then it should come as no surprise that we see the “weakness” as our own.

Insights from Linguistics can let us choose to interpret such exchanges through the lens of respect. Linguistic theories of (im)politeness offer an explanation of the meaning of face in our everyday conversations. We all need to feel valued, respected and appreciated and we generally know how to make people feel this way too – to support each other’s positive face needs.

One common framework for adding linguistic detail to theories of politeness and impoliteness is the somewhat unfortunately named “negative face”. This is not about making people feel bad, it is about giving others enough room and respect so they do not feel imposed upon, constrained, trapped.

So which language strategies allow people to protect this “space” aspect of being polite? Two of the most common are hedging and apologising. Hedging is all about sounding less certain than you really are so that your interlocutor gets plenty of wriggle room and can disagree, or turn you down without either of you loosing face.

Another is apologising – the way people ease into a request by apologising for making it. But by saying you are “sorry”, you are not expressing regret, you are showing your respect for another person’s right to refuse you. So when you hear yourself saying something like, “I’m sorry, could I possibly have a word with you?” you are not being weak, ineffective and powerless, you are being hyper-polite.

What you are actually saying is, “I apologise in advance if what I am about to ask you puts you in a corner – it is not my intention to do this. I would like to talk to you but I am making this request in such a way as to make it easy for you to refuse, and if you do, it will also serve to make sure I don’t look too silly.”

It is shorthand respect.

Where does this leave Elizabeth? It leaves her with a choice. She can interpret her experience through the lens of respect rather than power. Lucy is older, more experienced and in most cultures therefore deserving of respect. Whether on this occasion Elizabeth is showing too much respect, is a matter for her. Only she can judge the circumstances, the relationship and her goals – but if she wants to she can calibrate her level of respect and shift it ever so slightly, “Thank you for the report, Lucy. It mostly covers the bases but I [would like/need/want] you to take another look at the section on regulatory powers.”

Saying something in so slightly different a way may seem such a small thing; but shifting the balance of power in a moment requires the finest hairsbreadth of movements. If your aim of being polite is undermining your authority, step back into your power by turning your politeness down a notch – it could be that this person, this business or even this culture works to slightly different scale.

It is about what you do in this conversation in this micro-moment, and not about who or what you are – and leadership never gave anyone the right to be rude.