Time to think: a dose of communicative intention

I am not often given to remembering snatches of Wordsworth at 4 o’clock in the morning, but it has been a sleepless night in reflection of the status quo of how we seem to be doing communication in the last days, weeks and months. These lines stir from distant memory and study:


“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away a sordid boon!…

For this, for everything, we are out of tune..”


Worldly affairs are very much ‘with us’: we have just witnessed one of the most poisonous US elections in history; on the UK side of the pond, we are in the storm of vicious division about Brexit ramifications and process with outpourings in areas of social media and the press which are, to name them, nothing short of hateful, misogynistic, xenophobic and homophobic. We are ‘out of tune’. We can do better than this.

At a recent conference in Leeds, my pioneering speech and language therapy colleagues and I were speaking before members of the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists about what we know to be the power of communication and of finding one’s authentic voice in relation to gender dysphoria and gender identity. In addition to coaching trans women, trans men and non-binary people vocal exercises to explore the pitch, resonance, loudness, depth, brightness and expressivity of their voices, we offer group sessions to integrate these new ways of self-expression psychologically. In one session, we hold ‘speaking circles’. Originated by Lee Glickstein, this work enables people to develop what is known as relational presence – the ability to stand in front of a group, speak spontaneously from the heart, manage moments of silence and connect with those who are listening. This is effective communication. Think of the Native American Indian tradition of sitting in a circle and passing around the talking stick – everyone has a turn, everyone is valued, members listen with respect, even if they do not agree with what is said. ‘Communication’, from the Latin communicare, means to share; genuine sharing means communicating without demolishing someone or gaining power by taking it from them.

Whatever our politics or beliefs, we trust public speakers such as Mandela, Obama, Brene Brown, Glenda Jackon, Panti Bliss and Paris Lees – whoever they may be – because they reach out and share with us what is important to them. As a speech and language therapist and voice teacher, I stand up for human communication in its honourable forms. I know from my experience as a public speaker and therapist that communication is a flow of giving and receivinginformation – as much about learning to listen supportively and allowing people time to think, as it is formulating and speaking out our own thoughts. Of course we are human and we err. We do not always find the pithy or felicitous turn of phrase, especially when under pressure – when we are stressed our mental processing is not optimum. How important, then, is it to step back and listen to each other without labelling and shooting one another down in flames. As Brene Brown has said, we are all vulnerable in showing up and speaking up!

In our voice group sessions, trans clients develop skills in being effective communicators: telling their stories about the things they hold dear, and being transformational listeners for each others. We need a global dose of this right now. Of course we must all be mindful of the power of the words we choose and the impact they may have. Being compassionate and having the emotional intelligence to realise someone’s communicative intention are ways of being and behaving that we need to champion, otherwise we are in danger of annihilating each other and what we understand to be civilisation. Freedom of speech is not about being vile against difference, against being other, being gay, being female, being trans. It is not a feature of a reasonable or compassionate world to discount or reject misunderstanding and, for example, vilify a speech and language therapist in the audience of BBC 1’s Question Time last week who muddled her words under pressure in the moment, leading to the most shocking death threats against her and sexist comment from some journalistic quarters who are paid only to fuel public addiction to catastrophe and goading us into the drama triangle positions of rescuer, victim and persecutor. In these divisive times, let us not give our hearts away but remember the humanity we all share, and reach for the highest, not the lowest common denominators, build bridges, give space, read communicative intention, tolerate error, celebrate difference, be in tune.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post website on 9 November 2016.