Think about the last time where someone, clearly representing some good cause, stopped you in the streets, asking you questions that were so obviously leading to new, deepening questions and after one or two questions you’d know you were halfway through a trap?

Like when I’m in a shopping mall with my girls, each one holding one of my hands, clearly a mother with two daughters. Then some twenty-something student would stop me asking me: “ma’am, do you love your kids? Wouldn’t you want them to have the best education you could provide for them?” Sigh… which good cause wants my money this time…the trap of language has sprung on me again.

A couple of years ago we had a meeting at our girls’ school. It was supposed to be a meeting about the options we saw, in case the school should decide to change their opening hours. I’m all for exploring options, deciding if we want to continue doing what we do, or if change should be better. So what could have been a meeting about options, turned out to be anything but that.

Our school had teamed up with an organisation that helps schools with these choices and one of their people hosted the evening. He was eloquent and witty and most parents laughed as if they were in the theater listening to some sort of semi serieus stand-up comedian. He started his presentation with the promise that he would not try to sell us anything.

From that moment on, everything he said, to me, was some form of manipulation. The information shared was carefully chosen, but was far from complete. Options that were hard, expensive or unrealistic in his opinion were mentioned briefly, in sentences filled with words like, dreaming, untrue, false, and illustrated with jokes that put people whom would suggested these options, in a negative light.

He was smart. He was subtle and funny and at some of the jokes he made I felt angry and cornered and I looked around me to see if more people were as shocked as I was. Luckily, I found a few with the same frown on their face, not laughing, but most of the parents really had fun!

When it was time to ask questions, I was wondering if it would make sense to confront them with what I had seen and heard, wondering out loud about this way of communicating… I decided that it was probably pointless… it appeared to me that the decision had already been made and that protest was futile.

Later, I wrote a letter to the school board, asking them about this organisation and wondering out loud whether we had been influenced to start liking an option that had already been chosen for. The school replied that I had seen it all wrong and that everything was still open for debate and that there would be a survey and that the decision was going to be made after the results of the survey had been analysed. That was the moment I realized I should have spoken at that meeting. I should have laid out my wonders, my sense of feeling manipulated. In doing so, other parents could have started to wonder about how they felt they were treated and take some distance from what they had heard and reflect.

I was invited for a conversation in the school where I openly shared the way I had perceived the presentation. I repeated a few of the sentences I had written down, after they had been said during that evening and the response I got was that I must have misunderstood. They had very high regards for the organisation they worked with, these people had done this for a long time, they knew how to do this.

I didn’t feel heard, or seen, nor respected.

The survey came and, though less obvious, in that questionnaire, the questions were suggestive. To me it was so obvious that there was a desired outcome for the entire situation and we were carefully steered in that direction.

Needless to say that when the survey was done, and with only a small difference in votes for keeping things the way they were, and starting with the option that was sold to us, the school chose the latter.

I was so disappointed that a school, the place that I trust to co-raise my children into responsible young adults, would fall for such manipulative behavior. In hindsight it is so clear that even though the intentions might have been good… the language that had been chosen had manipulated many minds, including that of the ones in charge of the decision. I truly believe the schools principal thinks she had chosen an honest path, keeping all options open, but really, it wasn’t a fair game.

I’m grateful though, because having been part of this process. Having felt the manipulation, the popularity contest of someone “who’s done this for years and who knows what he’s doing”, has made me so much more aware of how the language we choose can change the way we think, the way we look at things and the way we feel about each other.

It is partly through this experience that I decided to choose my language more carefully at work, where as a change agent/coach it is so easy to steer people in the direction that I think will help them the best. But I know it will only be a sustainable change, if they choose it for the right reasons, as answer to their pain, not as a result of my manipulative “coaching”, regardless of what my intentions are.

The thing is… I do believe the twenty something student I began this story with, truly represents a good cause, something worthy of my money. I do. But when I feel manipulated to give them something, I’m no longer willing to listen. I don’t want to be trapped in either giving money or rudely rebuffing them with my kids present.

Same for the school. The new system the school choose is not bad per se. Hundreds, maybe thousands of schools have the same or a similar structure. Still I feel resentment. Because I was promised to be presented options, and instead I was manipulated in choosing just one.

And it is exactly this resentment that I see so often in organisations that have gone through some sort of transformation. The resentment of people who were told they would have a say in how their work lives would improve, but in the end didn’t see how they could influence the direction that was chosen and so I see something I really believe in, because I’ve it seen work in a few organisations, fail miserably in many, many others.

As change agents we need to be aware of this negative effect we can have, when “influencing” the people we work with. If we want the effect of our work to last longer than the time we spend with these organisations, we really, really need to be aware of the words we use and the invitation we create.


Published on Medium on December 18, 2019

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