Skip to main content

Words Count

| May 9, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Daniela Aivazian is the author of today’s Tuesday Reading.  She is an Organizational Effectiveness Specialist in Stanford University’s University IT organization.  Her essay first appeared as a leadership program reflection earlier this year.  [Dani may be reached at [email protected].]

In my second IT Leaders workshop, my coach said something that stopped me in my tracks. “Words matter,” she said during our conversation about diversity and inclusion. Using the colloquialism “you guys,” she continued (I’m paraphrasing), can feel exclusionary to people who are not guys: women obviously, but also gender-nonconforming people. Her words resonated deeply at that moment, and ever since, because “you guys” is a phrase I use all the time as if were gender-neutral. But my coach was right. It’s not.1
In the weeks since that workshop, I’ve been thinking about how much the words we use matter. This week, I am focusing my Leadership Reflection on the words that matter to me. These are the words that ground my presence, and are the root of who I am and how I show up as a person in the world. These are the words that inform who I am as a leader:
Encourage is a word that we imported into English, and its root is the French word coeur, which means heart. Encourage informs how I coach, which is a big part of my job and a skill I am constantly working on. Encourage is like a North Star for me when I’m coaching: I want to ask questions and listen hard so that my coachee and I get to the heart of the matter they’re trying to think through. Encourage also contains the word “courage,” which is another thing I’m trying to do as a coach. Encourage is a reminder to me that I want to close every coaching interaction having bolstered my coachee’s strength of purpose and courage to act
Kindness comes to us from Old Dutch via Old English. Its root is the word cynd(e), which meant human, nature, race. When I think about the word kindness, I’m always struck by the fact that it contains the word “kin,” which means family, neighbors, tribe, right at the beginning of the word, like a signpost pointing the way forward. Kindness for me is a prerequisite for interacting with other humans. It’s recognizing that fundamentally we are all kin, all in this together on our tiny blue marble of a planet. Kindness informs how I collaborate and build relationships. Kindness motivates how I share my talents, knowledge, and expertise. When I think about kindness as an essential component of leadership, I think about one of my earliest (and forever) role models, Fred Rogers, who welcomed everyone to his neighborhood, and was always warm and honest and open about what was true, especially when that truth might be hard to understand. Mr Rogers2 embodied kindness

Mr Rogers also embodied empathy. The dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The word was coined by a German philosopher at the turn of the last century; its root is the Greek word pathos which means feeling. When I think about empathy, though, I don’t think about the dictionary definition or etymology. I think about the visceral immediacy of Atticus Finch3 explaining the concept to his daughter Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” he says. “Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” That’s empathy to me. It’s like gravity. The word is a constant grounding for me, a constant reminder to put myself in other people’s shoes and walk around, thinking about how the world looks and sounds and feels from their perspective. Empathy is the gravitational center of who I am as a leader and a coach.
Empathy and compassion are related concepts.4 The words are occasionally used interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. Compassion combines two Latin words: com which means with, and passio which means suffering; literally, compassion means suffering with someone and sharing their pain. In current usage, compassion means not just sharing someone’s pain, but also working to alleviate it. This is the critical differentiator for me. Compassion is action oriented. It includes the desire to help. As I strive to be an empathetic listener and a compassionate coach, my goal is always to help. That the word compassion also has the word “compass” embedded in it is another reminder for me. When I’m coaching someone, my focus is on helping them find their direction so that they can move forward and take action.
The word that threads through all of these verbal explorations is the word coach, which to me isn’t just a job responsibility or a skillset. It’s a way of being in the world. The word coach comes from the French word coche, which is a traveling conveyance, like a stagecoach. Coaching is by definition action-oriented. It’s about getting people from one place to another. It’s about moving forward.
In conclusion
All of these words that matter to me are like signs and guardrails for how I move forward. They are a personal lexicon that informs how I show up as a coach and as a leader. Paying attention to these words, paying attention to all the words that I use (or don’t use) matters to me deeply. Because my coach was right. Words matter.
We often tell small children to “use their words.” My challenge to all of us is to reflect on how we use our words. Ask yourself:

  • What are the words that matter to you?
  • What is your personal leadership lexicon?
  • What are the words that inform your presence?
  • How do you hold the space for others to use their words?

I spent most of yesterday at my twelve-year-old daughter’s lacrosse tournament, which took place at Thurgood Marshall Middle School. The draft of this email sat at the back of my mind the whole day, and when I came back to it, I realized that the universe had connected a few more dots for me. Thurgood Marshall5 was Chief Counsel for the NAACP; his most famous case was the Brown v Board of Education case that ended racial segregation in public schools. He went on to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice. His life and accomplishments prove how much words can matter. Words can change the world.
So … what are your words?


 Dani is right, words matter.  So, what are your words?  
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Alternatives you might use include everyone, friends, people, team, colleagues, etc.
  2. If you don’t know who Mr. Rogers is, or can’t remember, you’re in luck. There is a documentary about him arriving in theatres this summer.
  3. Gregory Peck immortalized Atticus Finch on the big screen, and his delivery of this quote (his presence!) makes the words even more powerful. I’ve attached a video clip to this email, but it’s worth watching the movie again, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it.
  4. There are many think pieces about the difference between and limits of compassion and empathy. If you are interested, here are links to two thought-provoking HBR articles: The Limits of Empathy and It’s Harder to Empathize with People if You’ve Been In Their Shoes.
  5. If you want to know more about Thurgood Marshall, you can start here.