Words May Tear Us Apart (w/ Neil Edwards)

Neil discusses how words get in the way of advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts. He uses the old childhood rhyme “Sticks and Stones” to highlight the error many were taught at an early age. In this episode he uses two scenarios to outline harmful and unproductive behaviors present in J.E.D.I work and invites leaders to be more relationally intelligent in their interactions in service of advancing racial justice.

You can connect with Neil on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. You can email him at neil@neiledwardscoaching.com.


(00:11): I am Neil Edwards, and this is the Leadership Range where we elevate the voices of black and brown coaches, leaders, and allies, and have soulful conversations about all things at the intersections of leadership, relationships and teams, well-being, and inclusion. Here, I offer deep insights and practical tips for work and life.

(00:34): «Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.» This childhood rhyme is designed to produce resilience in children faced with bullying, or just bad playground behavior. The truth is words are not harmless. I’ve always taken issue with this rhyme because it’s false. I’m fortunate to never have been bullied as a young boy, but I’ve seen bullying unfold and faced off with bullies on behalf of others, on behalf of my friends. I remember those times where I could see clear as daylight, the pain, embarrassment, shame, or fear of bullying on the faces of my friends, even as they were reciting, «but words will never hurt me». I watched what was cordial acquaintances become disinterested souls, and friends turned into foes.

(01:23): Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will tear us apart. I’m noticing how words tear people apart or cripple the important work in justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Our words have lingering impact. I don’t know anyone perfect with all their words. I certainly am not close, but I’m aware of how damaging words can be. Especially as these conversations around highly-charged topics become ubiquitous. My stake as an organization and relationship systems coach is to elevate and advance relationships between two people, in or between teams or groups, for whole organizations, or in society.

(02:05): As an [inaudible 00:02:05] coach, a licensed global leader of relationship systems intelligence, or co-active leader. I carry this relationship and systemic lens in my work. Relationship intelligence is crucial for almost everything we do in life. We are always in relationship even if it’s with ourselves or with things. But when it comes to relationships with others, it is absolutely crucial, if we want to create a more inclusive, unjust workplace, strong, healthy relationships, support business results, and contribute to fulfilling work experiences for people. Which doubles down on the business value of having relationally intelligent workplaces.

(02:50): Today, I want to elevate two observations for reflection and potential behavioral adjustment. They both affect advancing justice, diversity and inclusion work, and both are from my own experiences and observations in this space. One, how words are damaging relationships that are needed to advance this work, and two, how words can impede focus and progress. It doesn’t matter what skin color a person is wearing attacking people over historical words now used in common vernacular is damaging. I’ve noticed various lists of words with a racist history floating around digital and social media. And maybe you have too. Of course, I think it is important to elevate and bring understanding to how the words we use and have adopted over time into everyday vernacular might contribute to systemic racism. Sometimes it goes too far though. Even worse, going too far can be combined with inaccuracy and damage relationships needed to advance the work.

(03:51): An executive I work with came to me several weeks ago. We have periodic check-ins. This executive, a white male, shared how he was essentially attacked and admonished for using the term, ‹grandfather’. Grandfather was language used in some Southern states to determine who would be eligible to vote, based on that grandfather’s right to vote before the civil war. It was meant to prevent former enslaved people and their ancestors from voting. The word itself was not derogatory or dehumanizing. It was used in a racist system to determine who could and who could not vote. Attacking a person for not knowing the history, the history of a term is counterproductive. Sharing the history is useful. Attacking a person’s character is not. Attacking a person’s character can result in feelings of shame, which in this context makes that white man less likely to engage in the future. It serves no one. Allyship, accomplice and co-conspirator are words, not worth fighting over.

(04:53): The declarations of allyship from corporations and majority white-skinned people over the last 12 to 16 months or so came with backlash because they were more performative and theatrical than authentic. It seems the corporations and individuals realize they’re folly and are now distancing themselves through PR marketing, backpedaling and silence. They are adopting new language like accomplished and co-conspirator while jockeying for position to be right, gain positive market sentiment, and social acknowledgement or acceptance. Even well-meaning DEI practitioners are caught up in the nonsensical debates over these terms.

(05:36): I use ally, not because I think the others are wrong, but because ally makes sense to me from a relationship perspective. But the word itself matters less than the relationship work it demands. Furthermore, conspirator and accomplished sound like nefarious activity to me. And what I’m doing is in broad daylight. When time is wasted, discussing word usage for attention, grabbing the focus work of dismantling systemic and structural racism is not happening. And relationships are not advancing as needed to add power to the work.

(06:10): I’ve seen white-skinned people in fervid debate, trying to be the most woke. I’ve seen black and brown-skinned people caught up in corporate sculpting and revising of narratives, as if it is meaningful work. None of these activities advanced justice. What if everyone focused on building relationships as a first priority in seeking justice together? My invitation is for everyone to one, breathe in and then breathe out with relationally intelligent responses. If there is a complaint in your heart, number two, reframe it as a request for what you want. And number three, make the request as a leader who wants to build relationships.

(06:51): I believe people will more likely be responsive, positive, and productive. And I believe organizations will begin to reap dividends from their diversity and inclusion efforts, which are certainly desperately needed. Systems and structures that maintain racism will come into clearer view, and become subject to efforts to dismantle them. Don’t let the words tear us apart.

(07:22): Thank you for listening to this episode of the Leadership Range. If you enjoyed the episode, I invite you to peruse the others for more great conversations. If you know someone you think ought to be on the podcast, please send me an email at neil@neiledwardscoaching.com to connect with me. You can find me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/nedwards07. I look forward to you joining in for more conversations each Monday, on the Leadership Range.

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