Claiming Space and Creating Space

How often are you talked over by someone in a meeting? How often do you talk over someone else? How often do you find yourself listening to someone go on and on, with no real entry point to offer your own thoughts? How often would others say the same about you?

Now think about a leader you admire. Are you able to recognize – and maybe even imitate – their speech patterns? World leaders are widely copied, and often mocked, and its easy to call to mind the differences in speech between Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden, because we’ve all heard them speak so much. Which poses the question: Would those who hear you speak a lot be able to mimick your speech patterns in a way that’s recognizable for others? What makes your speech distinctive? Do you have particular words you use repeatedly, or unique intonation? What makes your speech your speech?

A facilitator training I participated in more than twenty years ago put a lot of focus on eliminating the use of mid-sentence crutch words such as “umm,” “like,” “y’know,” and “uhh,” in order to become a more effective public speaker. And if you think back to the leader you admire, you might notice that few leaders use these crutch words on a regular basis when speaking to a group (and in the moments when they do, this is often interpreted as more relatable; more authentic; more human). There’s a good reason for this, beyond whatever public speaking training they had: they don’t need them in the ways we do. We use these crutches as a way to: 1) gather our thoughts, and 2) hold the space as our own so someone else doesn’t take it over. For the most part, of course, world leaders’ speeches are scripted, and the leaders are inherently granted with the authority by those with them to command the room. They have the space they need to say what they want; a President won’t be interrupted by a reporter or a member of congress if they pause midsentence. The same is true of a CEO addressing their staff in a town hall meeting; at most, perhaps, they may see some non-verbal responses, and some hands raise.

For most of us, we’re not in these situations as we go through our days, but whether we’re conscious of it or not, we regularly use these crutch words to claim the space as our own. These are deeply engrained habits that we might never fully change. But what might happen if we focused on using our speech to create space for others, and invited them to participate?

This Week’s Tip:

Make an effort to use your words not to claim space, but to create space.

  1. Pay attention to your use of language – including crutch words – to claim the conversational space as your own. If any meetings you participate in are recorded, watching back might be the best way to check in with your use of language. Have lots of grace for yourself. No judgement! Just raise your awareness. If you need help being aware, you could ask a trusted colleague to pay attention, or even to surreptitiously record you (as long as there’s consent from everyone involved).
  2. Use your language to create space for others to contribute. Focus on using open-ended questions. Leave spaces for others to jump in, and invite them to do so. You may find that your leadership style naturally evolves from banquet style to potluck style, or the Thanksgiving hybrid model.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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