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ON THE 11th HOUR: when the war went quiet
“What’s in a word? A world!”
The big picture
The words we choose matter. Not just for clarity, understanding, political correctness, or professionalism — but because they form the stories we tell, the identities we construct, and the beliefs we hold. The words we choose shape the world we live in, and they can constrict or expand it accordingly.
“We live in a world where how we speak, what we speak and the stories we tell define and become who we are.”
-Chené Swart, Re-Authoring the World
Why it’s relevant
We all have stories that we tell. Stories about ourselves, others, organizations, communities, and the society we live in. And one of the things that can make growth, change and innovation so hard is that we don’t have a narrative (or story) for the yet-to-be-experienced reality we dream of. For example, maybe you’re “not a risk-taker,” or your company “works in silos,” or you’re part of a community of people who “always get left behind,” or today’s society is one where “millennials are burning out,” or “emotionally available men are hard to find.”
I didn’t make these stories up; I’ve heard them all before and chances are that you have, too.
And so, imagine what it might take for a person who labels themselves as risk averse to believe they can be an entrepreneur, or for a workplace that is frequently described as territorial to become a truly collaborative one. What about transforming the experience of a community from marginalization into belonging or creating the conditions required for a generation of people to have an alternative experience, what does that large-scale transformation call for?
A lot of action, right? It certainly requires the majority of people to work and think differently, yes? What about speaking and conversing with one another differently and changing one’s own inner dialogue, what role might that have in sparking evolution? According to narrative experts like Chené Swart, the answer is: a heck of a lot.
What it looks like
Although she’s based in South Africa, Swart takes her work all over the world and works with communities, tribes, leaders, and managers who want to re-write their own stories in some way. Ultimately, for the purpose of growing and evolving beyond their status quo. Using a set of practices and processes that she refers to as narrative work, Swart has been invited into conversations on the topics of arts, economics, tourism, education, religion, womanhood, and more.
As she explains in the introduction of her book Re-Authoring the World, narrative work is relevant for anyone who “cannot sit back in a state of docility claiming that what we have is just the way things are.”
When put that way, it’s hard not to be curious about how our conversations and stories can create the change we want to see (and experience) in the world.
Where to start
I recently spent two and a half days learning with Swart and one of the things that struck me was the importance of respecting the person speaking as being the primary author of their story — without exception. We can work shift narratives and stories, certainly, but the starting point must always be respecting and validating what feels true right now. One particular practice she recommends for doing that — and for making more room for people to be seen and heard exactly as they are — is using the vocabulary of the person you’re speaking to.
Next time someone describes their experience in a way that makes you uncomfortable or uses words that are different than what you might choose, pause and notice: is your tendency to reframe what you heard? When pondering this question, I will admit that I became acutely and uncomfortably aware of my own tendency to coach and nudge people to see things — including their own lived experience — differently.
In her teaching, Swart calls for a level of acceptance and respect that goes deeper and further than just allowing for “differences of opinions” and then moving on to solutions and consensus. Rather, a more inclusive starting point is re-dignifying the experiences people are having by not trying to judge, assume, reframe or rename them.
Imagine this …
Someone expresses the experience they’re having by saying, “This is sh*t.”
You, trying to show you’re listening and being sympathetic might say, “I understand you’re not happy with the current situation.”
Then imagine trying this instead…
Someone expresses the experience they’re having by saying, “This place is sh*t.”
You, having complete respect for the words and experience of the speaker says, “Tell me more about this sh*t place.”
In Western culture, we look to make meaning out of everything. Our choices, opportunities, challenges, surprises, relationships, jobs, interactions, feelings, thoughts, lives — we want to know, what does it all mean?! The way we make sense of the meaning we assign is through language and interpersonal interactions. Actions and behaviours certainly have a role to play in shaping change, but let’s not discount the importance that words and conversations can have, too.
3 ways to invite diversity into your conversation
1. Practice curiosity:
Dare to ask questions that you don’t know (or assume) to know the answer to.
2. Be open to being transformed:
Enter into conversations with a willingness to change your mind about something.
3. Give gifts:
Distinctly different than compliments, Chené Swart defines gifts as “offerings of our moved hearts.” Instead of telling something they’re brave or that their scarf is beautiful, choose to share something more specific about why someone else’s bravery matters to you or what about the scarf moves you or evokes a reaction from you.
NOW ATLANTIC - JULY 2019
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