The Rev’d Dr Martin Luther King (Jnr) once said in a public address:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
In the context of everyday conversation, the sweet spot we hope for as fellow Christians is to speak “power with love” and “love with power”.
Language has the power to change our reality. Just as God speaks the universe into existence, so we shape the world around us through the power of our spoken words.
This capacity can have dark sides, such as when we speak words of threat, intimidation and coercion on one hand or when we fail to speak truthfully and courageously on the other hand.
Speaking “power with love” involves the assertion of a loving position while upholding the dignity of the other. Speaking “love with power” involves the willingness to release our grip on personal agendas to make genuine space for others’ points of view while upholding our own dignity.
Adam Kahane, in his book Power and Love, suggests that we rarely strike this balance perfectly. He suggests that our conversations are more like walking – where we are always slightly off balance – as we make constant adjustments between power and love.
This can all sound a bit abstract, so I will ground this in the context of Alan Sieler’s work on “linguistic (speech) acts”. In his Coaching to the Human Soul (2003) the Newfield Institute’s Sieler suggests a framework in which all spoken language can be described in six categories.
Assertions: Facts, arrived at by commonly held standards of evidence.
Assessments: Subjective assessments of the way I see the world and express my concerns.
Declarations: Statements that change the reality of a situation because of the accepted authority of the person making the declaration (e.g. an umpire declaring that the ball is out-of-bounds or a person declaring that they will or will not take a particular course of action).
Requests: A speech act in which I ask another person to take care of a concern/ or need that I have.
Offers: A speech act in which I offer to take care of the concerns or needs of another person.
Promises: A mutual morally binding commitment that arises between two people when a request or a promise is accepted by the other party.
The clarity with which we understand and deploy speech acts can render our communications more or less effective.
The following examples show how we can confuse meaning and intent in everyday conversations:
- Assessments can get confused with Assertions (e.g. “The fact of the matter is that our economic policies will be more effective that the opposition’s”).
- Offers can get confused with Requests (e.g. “It’s fine to leave your shoes by the front door”).
- Assessments can get confused with Requests (e.g. “It would be great if you could put the bins out”).
Learning how speech acts work and deploying them skilfully is like carrying around a very handy box of tools, drawing on the tools that are best suited to the purpose.
This can enable us to walk the delicate balance between power and love in the everyday communications of family, work or church life – whether that be communication in the public square; when we are dealing with uncertain conditions or “wicked problems”; in dialogue while exploring an issue; gaining shared commitment to action; or, bringing commitment to fruition.
The way we communicate can be a daily practice of peace when we balance power and love.
Editor’s note: The Rev’d Michael Wood is an Anglican priest and facilitator, based in Western Australia. His new book Practicing Peace: Theology, Contemplation and Action (with a foreword by The Very Rev’d Dr Peter Catt) will be launched at St John’s Cathedral on Wednesday 15 June at 7pm. Register online to attend.
Michael is also running a ‘Utilising the power of language in leadership’ workshop, along with The Rev’d Canon Sarah Plowman. The workshop will focus on linguistic speech acts and will be held on Thursday 16 June at St John’s Cathedral. Register online to attend.