Betwixt & Between

Issue #1

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Choosing our words with care

Choosing our words with care – a consideration of precise speaking as a critical tool in a partnership broker’s toolbox.

In considering this topic, I am influenced by two contrasting views of words:

  • The quote by TS Eliot (below) captures the essential ‘slipperiness’ of language. He uses words themselves to convey something of their own elusiveness so that as we read we find ourselves in uncertain territory with ideas being named and almost immediately, amoeba-like, changing their nature and eluding our understanding.
  • Rene Magritte[1] uses an image of a word to convey the exact opposite. Entitled ‘The Art of Conversation’ his painting depicts a huge set of Neolithic stones (ten times the height of two tiny people in the foreground) embedded in which is the term ‘REVES’[2] – the implication being that even dreams, those most ephemeral of human experiences, once named become fossilised and overpowering.

These may appear to be contradictory positions, but I suspect that both are true – in the sense of words getting so beyond our control that they can begin to take over and control us.

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still [3]

Words can explain, clarify, confirm… they can evolve, challenge and change… they can energise, evoke and inspire. But they can also mislead and / or manipulate when used as a means of control. “Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good” – is a saying ascribed to the Chinese sage, Lao Tsu[4] and we as partnership brokers would do well to reflect on how often we try to use words to ‘persuade’ rather than to ‘engage’!

It is usual for those of us operating as partnership brokers to aspire to being good listeners – most of us are keenly aware that our ability to intermediate effectively between highly diverse peoples and systems depends on this critically important skill. Indeed, in a world that is increasingly full of noise of many different kinds, the art of active (or ‘mindful‘) listening and the ability to create enough space or silence in which people can truly speak and be heard may be one of the most important contributions a partnership broker can make to helping partners to build and maintain truly effective and valuable partnerships.

But perhaps listening skills are only half the story. Do we, as partnership brokers, give as much attention to our speaking as we do to our listening skills? And if not, why not? And what would it take to change this?

We tend to use language unconsciously and perhaps this piece is little more than an invitation to brokers to use language – the words we choose – more consciously, more ‘intentionally’. This is something over and above ‘plain speaking’ – although plain speaking is a good place to start, in fact partnership brokers can lead the way in choosing words that draw together by their simplicity rather than separate by their complexity[5].

It is easy to use words carelessly, but as partnership brokers perhaps we need to do better and to consider how we speak as being of equal importance as how we listen. Do we really think carefully enough about what we say and how our choice of words really matters? Do we think carefully enough about what other’s say and how we accept or challenge their words? Should we reflect further on the notion that just because certain words are said, they are not necessarily meant or they are ‘meant’ only in the sense of the speaker seeking to contain the responses of the listener…
“ I know you won’t like this but…”
“ In the interests of transparency I have to say…”
“ Trust me, I only want what’s best but…”
“ This is not really a ‘partnership’ approach if…”

The question I am raising here is: how can we get better at selecting the words we use and how can we infuse those words with warmth and authenticity so that they fully maximise their value in the partnership-building process.

Is this a question of the ‘art’ of listening and the ‘science’ of speaking? Can we come to think of words as precision instruments – capable of destroying or mending according to how they are used – and then use them in our day-to-day partnership brokering work with greater consciousness and keener insight in order to break out of habitual speaking patterns and break through to something better?

Ros Tennyson

RosTennysonB&WA pioneer in the field of multi-stakeholder partnerships and partnership brokering, Ros is the author or co-author of a number of practical tool books, reviews and case studies – from the first (Managing Partnerships) published as part of a World Bank project in 1998 to the most recent (Level 1 Workbook for Partnership Brokers) published by the Partnership Brokers Association in 2012.

Ros led the partnership work of the International Business Leaders Forum from 1992 to 2011 – where her work took her from Bosnia to Brazil, from Canada to Cambodia and from Italy to India (and many other places!). Now an independent operator, Ros is currently working as the Development Director of the Partnership Brokers Association; a Senior Associate for The Partnering Initiative as well as undertaking new and interesting projects in the partnership and partnership brokering sphere.

She likes to think of herself as a ‘social innovator’ and in addition to a strong training portfolio, she enjoys facilitating complex meetings / events; coaching and mentoring the next generation of partnership practitioners and still finds time to think ‘outside the box’.

[1] Rene Magritte (1898-1967) – Belgian surrealist painter

[2] This is the French word for ‘dreams’

[3] TS Elliot (1888-1945) – Four Quartets

[4] Lao Tsu (6th Century BC) translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1973)

[5] As words go, a personal favourite in the latter category is the word ‘obfuscate’ that exemplifies so well the very thing it tries to describe!

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