The Power of Language in Creating Spaces of Belonging
In the Harvard Business Review, authors Julia Taylor Kennedy and Pooja Jain-Link (2021) summed up leading research in the field to identify four aspects of workplace culture that lend themselves to creating a sense of belonging. These are feeling seen, feeling connected, feeling supported, and feeling proud. Each of these aspects is vitally important when people are working together to create spaces of belonging. Let’s focus, for the moment, on the aspect of feeling seen.
As I write about the idea of feeling seen, I want to acknowledge that I do not mean the act of seeing or being seen with one’s eyes, as not everyone can see in this way. Instead, I mean the act of acknowledging and feeling acknowledged, listening and being listened to, and witnessing and being witnessed as you truly are. So many of us move through each day and interact with a variety of family, friends, or coworkers, yet are we really being seen? Are we truly seeing others in a way that they feel seen?
What people witness of us on the outside is just the tip of the iceberg of all we are. There are many aspects of one’s identity and lived experience that live below the surface. To get to those deeper parts of self, we need to share and listen to the stories we have about who we truly are. But who is afforded the power of sharing their story? Whose stories are validated and reflected back to them as important? Whose stories are normalized and standardized? Whose stories become the dominant paradigms of our workplace, organizations, groups, and friend and family cultures?
There is power in language and representation. By becoming aware of the words we choose to use (or not to use) and acknowledging who has the space, time, and power to share their words and stories, we can begin to get a picture of who belongs in any given space or place. For example, as a queer person who uses two sets of pronouns (she/her and they/them), I am immediately aware of my surroundings based on if there are others sharing their pronouns in the room (or via email or Zoom). The simple act of using pronouns in introductions creates space for me and other queer or gender-expansive people to exist as we are, knowing that we belong. When we are each given time to share who we are and are met with recognition and acceptance, this makes a big difference in creating a culture of belonging. Equally important is having a space where language differences are normalized and tools for translation or interpretation can be accessed. When those resources are in place and easily accessible, it normalizes the diverse ways that humans speak, communicate, and relate to each other, and it decenters the idea that there is only one way to speak, express, or be.
I invite you to take a moment for self-reflection. In what ways do language and self-expression support you to feel a sense of belonging in spaces that you exist within? Does your use of language and the ways you listen to others support other people to feel truly seen in the spaces, places, and communities you are part of? Who might be less seen, and how can you shift the culture of belonging wherever you are? How does all of this interact with your work as a NAEYC affiliate?
There is no one right way of doing things and no one set of words or ways to express that will instantly create a sense of belonging for all. It’s not about getting everything perfect or right, but it’s about communicating authentically, creating space for less-represented voices to be fully heard, and to use language that reflects, affirms, and supports diverse identities and lived experiences. By becoming aware of how our words, stories, and ways of listening impact the culture of belonging in the spaces we inhabit, we can take that first step to critically engage with co-creating spaces of belonging with those around us.