By Travis Marsh

Language helps us connect. It lets us express ourselves, understand others, and bond with the people we value the most. Through language, we discover, organize, and transform our world. But if we use it the wrong way, we can tear down progress. So the success of our teams and organizations and the synergy we create depend on how consciously we communicate.

When it comes to words, if we are aware of what they entail and mean at a deeper level, we can start using them with intention. The use of conscious language helps reinforce positive patterns in the workplace and strengthen the bond between team members. That is because it helps us become more empathetic when delivering feedback and creates a space where everyone feels safe to express themselves.

Leaders of progressive organizations have to take on the responsibility to design and promote a language that resonates with their teams, facilitates collaboration, and gives people a sense of belonging. But most importantly, leaders have to hold the space in which that language is used.


To better understand that last idea, we should go over some of the terms frequently adopted by Teal, Holacratic, and other types of self-managing organizations. These frameworks propose discussion dynamics and buzzwords that encourage everyone to speak their minds and actively contribute. They do so by using words like:

●      Check-in: “doing a check-in” means inviting people to share what is on top of their minds. Using this at the beginning of a meeting encourages everyone to feel comfortable expressing their ideas and listening to others. See example check-in questions here.

●      Check-out: similar to check-in, this process invites people to share their thoughts and conclusions with the team at the end of a meeting. These interventions are usually brief and can be lighthearted.

●      Harvest: this refers to the act of collecting any practice or idea born from a discussion that could benefit the organization. Those proposals or practices can then be posted as notes around the office.

●      Ecosystem: contrary to the way we’re used to seeing companies—as cold machines—, this term helps us picture organizations as complex, living systems made up of interconnected beings.

●      Followership: this may not be as celebrated as leadership, but it is just as important. Followership is shown whenever someone supports someone else’s ideas and projects.

●      Sense: using this word helps us share our intuition with others. Sometimes, we may not be completely sure about something, but we sense that some decisions could lead our team and organization in a certain direction. Using “uncertain words” and sentences also helps us approach others from a level of understanding rather than authority.

●      Show up: this term refers to how we present ourselves, but not in a physical way. Showing up means becoming aware of our state of mind and thoughts during a meeting or gathering and how they may affect our participation.

●      Hold space: this last concept may be one of the most difficult to grasp, but it is fundamental to the success of leaders and their teams. It refers to the act of creating and maintaining a physical and social space where everyone feels safe to share, explore, and debate ideas.

The challenges of the space holder

A leader is often in charge of holding the space, but anyone can help create an optimal place for ideas. At first, this role may sound similar to being a moderator. However, being a space holder goes further than asking people to respect others’ intentions and ideas. It means being completely present in the room—or the Zoom room—to catch every thought and read everyone’s reactions. It means understanding the culture of the organization and promoting it. It means helping people feel heard, valued, and part of something bigger than themselves.

Holding space, then, is similar to the concept of creating a safe space, a physical location that serves as a refuge for a particular group of people. But defining that latter term has become a little problematic, and we can’t use language intentionally and bring ideas to life if we don’t understand the extent of words first.

When people talk about “safe spaces,” they usually conceive them as cultural and emotional havens, places where like-minded people can meet and be shielded against destructive criticism and opinions that make them uncomfortable. But as Katherine Ho explored in an article for Harvard Political Review, this term has more than one interpretation.

While it is true that we all need a place where we can feel protected and understood, avoiding things that causes discomfort can be counterproductive, especially when it comes to ideas. So a “safe space” can also be defined as a space that invites all kinds of ideas and, contrary to the emotional safe spaces, gives people the right to make others uncomfortable through logical argumentation and debate. This safe space is known as an academic or intellectual safe space.

Both types of safe spaces are beneficial to us. One provides the emotional and cultural protection we need to be ourselves, and the other allows us to express, discuss, discover, and grow intellectually. That is why, as leaders, we need to find a balance and create organizational settings where individuals feel sufficiently emotionally safe and comfortable enough to share their thoughts and listen to others’ ideas. If we understand each other, we can start transforming our work culture.

How does your organization do in creating the safe spaces that would best help it thrive? What would help make it better? If you’d like to talk more about it, feel free to grab some time on my calendar and we can discuss it more.

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