I started my research into ‘respectful language’ having delivered a number of workshops on the subject as part of Equality and Diversity programmes. People often requested this session because in their professional roles they felt scared to use ‘wrong words’. What always struck me was that during the training activity people often expressed frustration with political correctness, it made them angry or more confused about what to say. Often people were happily surprised to find out that some of the ideas that underpin respectful language come from the Civil Rights movement. Unlike political correctness, respectful language demands an intentional and deliberate understanding from the speaker to recognise phrases that denote group stereotypes or ‘characteristics’ under the law (Equalities Act UK).

The use of respectful language, therefore, encourages people to take responsibility for what they say and think about the impact of the ideas behind their words. Particularly at work, professionals have a duty to remove the discrimination some groups face, with that comes a need to learn about language ownership and group identity. Using a research methodology that also respects the principles of Asset-Based Community Development, the interviews gave people opportunity for a dialogue that supports reflection for action.

The development of respectful language is one way of engaging an entire community of practice in cultural change. The purpose is not to identify ‘good’ or ‘bad’ words in order to define correct terminology once and for all. It is about a shared authority, in this context, leadership activity may be viewed as conversations between individuals from different groups to increase awareness of different experience.

Five things I learned from this research:

  1. Community: ‘A community of practice’ can be defined as a willing association of professionals, a diverse group working across institutions. There is a danger in the assumption that marginalised groups exist outside these typical social networks. Therefore working with a community approach makes entitlement clear – stating an expected sense belonging. A statement against the segregation, that can fragment groups and threaten relationships within communities.
  2. Respect: is a demonstration of empathy, a mindful and proactive activity. Empathy requires intentional thinking, the recognition that other people’s feelings and circumstances are separate from our own, and a willingness to act appropriately in response to these. Respectful language, therefore, begins with an intention to respond to what others actually want. Showing respect does not involve benevolence or guess work, or simply giving what we are comfortable with having identified as a need – it is a conversation.
  3. Reflection for action: Stereotypes tend to fit with our existing worldview, so addressing our own thinking requires an external – participation in a different experience. An understanding of our learning may secure a better judgement, but in conversations with others we gain different insights, feelings and perspectives that could lead to different understanding.
  4. Leadership: requires confidence, helping others learn is a generous act, as a Leader a teacher is acting to prove their own worth but enabling others to grow theirs.
  5. Professionalism: is about collective ideas, the co-construction of knowledge and the development of joint purpose. This is achieved through the process of creating a common language, one that reflects and affirms shared principles and equal humanity.

These findings demonstrate the asset-mapping of a worldwide community of practice and these ideas the gifts of professionals who gave their time so generously. Our conversations taught me we belonged to the same web of activity, a network of people who care deeply enough to express their commitment through daily activity that helps secure change to make shared vision a reality.