Speaking Inclusively

When we speak, we communicate our opinions. Unfortunately, we often think our opinions are “THE TRUTH.” When we convey them as such, we threaten people’s sense of safety and undermine our relationships. This is not helpful because working with others is the key to getting things done.

So the question is how can we communicate what we think in ways that maintain or strengthen relationships so people can collaborate productively? Speaking inclusively is one way to help people stay in relationship with you and with one another.

Speaking inclusively means communicating your point of view as just that, your point of view. It also means noticing the impact of what you are saying and how you are saying it on others and on you. Speaking inclusively engages people in a conversation with you and helps keep you open to others’ perspectives. Speaking inclusively encourages participation while speaking exclusively discourages it.

Here’s what inclusive speaking sounds like, “This is how I see the situation. How do the rest of you see it?” Here is what exclusive speaking sounds like, “This is what the situation is. Now, here is what I want you to do about it.” Inclusive speaking tends to generate commitment to the results of a conversation while exclusive speaking tends to evoke compliance: rarely what is needed to implement decisions successfully.

When you prepare for an interaction, you most likely prepare what you want to propose, the positions you want to take, and the counter-arguments you want to be ready to wield. All of this can help you clarify your thinking so you can adeptly articulate your point of view when the time comes. However, the downside is that as you prepare what you want to say, you solidify your opinions so that when you speak you risk sounding more adamant that you might really be. Speaking with uncompromising confidence can engender a combative tone in a meeting and make it less likely that people will be open to being influenced by you or anyone else and less willing to explore new ways of thinking about the issue at hand. This is especially true if you are speaking as the highest-ranking person in the room.

It is tricky to find the right balance: be clear about your perspective, present it in a cogent way, while still remaining open to the perspectives of others. To help you find the right balance I suggest:

  1. Prepare your inner state. As you get ready for a meeting, pay attention to your breathing and pulse. If they are quickening, it is likely you are frightened and will speak more exclusively than inclusively. People tend to speak more vehemently when they are afraid of not getting their way, not being liked, or having something taken away. Ask yourself what is at stake for you and how you could speak truthfully about what matters to you without tipping over into speaking as if it is the exclusive truth.
  2. Rehearse how you might express what you want to say in an inclusive way. A president of a community college ended her opening statement for a planning session with a jocular, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” Her laugh let people know that, despite her authoritative manner of speaking, she was open to different points of view. A CEO of a manufacturing firm often shares his opinion by starting with “This is how I think about it at this moment.”
  3. Define the relationship you want with others. What is the implicit message you want to communicate to others about your relationship with them? Is it, “I know what’s what so you should listen to me.” Or, is it, “We face a complex issue and the only way to solve it is for us to work together.”

Thank you to Heather Equinoss for the illustration.

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