As an educator, do you pay attention to the language you use when you are leading a discussion about art or objects? Do you notice how certain words, phrases and tenses can have a positive or negative effect on a group? Here are 5 ways you can use language for positive effect in your discussions.

1. Use neutral language

Staying as neutral as possible as a facilitator encourages feedback from every participant and allows for multiple interpretations. Neutrality is a tricky concept (here’s a good read on it) and this subject is always quite a thorny one in my classes and trainings.
Using neutral language doesn’t mean that you have to lose your personality or act unnaturally ‘beige’ with your group. However, it does mean that you should treat everyone equally. If you decide to give positive feedback to one member of the group for a response, you then should treat everyone the same.
By keeping the words you use and responses you give as neutral as possible, you avoid alienating members of the group and keeps the discussion as inclusive as possible. Neutrality also prevents the educator being cast (or casting themselves) into the role of the ‘expert’. Remember you are aiming for ‘guide-on-the-side’ not ‘sage-on-the-stage’.

2. Use non-judgemental feedback

Giving feedback to a group member who has made a comment or stated their opinion is important. It shows you have not only heard their response, but understand it too.
How you react to each comment will have an impact on the group itself. Overly positive or negative feedback can limit and close down a discussion. Giving judgemental feedback encourages participants to compare themselves with others.
If you are interested in hearing a wide range of comments from all participants, giving feedback without any implied judgement is essential. This sets the tone of fairness within the group. This requires practice and patience.
Effective feedback requires careful use of language and a neutral stance (verbally and through body language). If you find it hard to offer a neutral response, try summarising or paraphrasing what the person has said using the conditional language described below. Using feedback in a neutral way opens up the discussion so that everyone in the group feels their opinions are valid and valued.
Non-judgemental responses help to build trust within the group. It does not mean you cannot be encouraging or show enthusiasm and interest in what a group member is saying. Notice the difference between these two responses:

‘Wow, that’s a great idea! I wish I had thought of that’

‘It sounds like you have a good theory there. I’m interested in hearing more about…’

Which one do you think would build the most trust in the group and encourage others to share their thoughts?
Both comments could work, but the first is extremely enthusiastic, so you would need to ensure that you responded to ALL future comments in a similarly positive way or risk alienating group members. The second response still demonstrates sincere interest and encouragement but in a more neutral tone.

3. Use conditional language

This simply involves the use of language that allows for multiple answers or options – for example, ‘might’ ‘could’ ‘maybe’ and so on.
Using conditional language confirms that there is not one absolute way of reading certain aspects of a work.  That there is no ‘right’ answer.
This opens up the conversation within the group and allows for more possibilities and interpretations.
Compare, ”Finn says that the object comes from Africa’ to ‘Finn thinks that the object might come from Africa. What does everyone else think?’

4. Use the language of thinking

The language of thinking can be simply defined as words that describe and evoke thinking. The aim is to develop and encourage a rich language of thinking; using words like ‘reason’, ‘conclude’, ‘opinion’ rather than ‘think’, ‘guess’ and ‘feel’.  Using these precise words actually helps people to think better.
‘To say that one is pondering something is to characterize one’s thinking in quite a different way than to say that one is analyzing, reviewing, considering, or investigating something..’ (Shari Tishman, David Perkins)
As an educator, you can help your participants develop a rich and diverse vocabulary by paraphrasing their comments and modelling the use of such words.

5. Use thinking routines

As educators, we are sometimes provided with ‘helpful’ checklists about what language or questions to use with our groups rather than specific hands-on training. As I’ve said before, this is not a good substitute for good training and consistent practice and tends to confuse and overload the very person who is in control of a group’s  experience.
Thinking routines provide a flexible structure for your discussions and change the way educators interact with their groups. The questions are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions. Regular and repeated use of thinking routines has been shown to help build a language of thinking, encourage the use of conditional language (‘might’ ‘could’ etc) and help people externalise their thoughts more clearly.
The more you use thinking routines, the more they become second-nature. The more they become second-nature, the easier it is for you to word your questions in the same way. Regular use of thinking routines is one way to teach yourself to phrase and ask better questions in your discussions. 

PRO TIPS 💡

  • Get filmed! If you’d like to improve the way you use language on your tours, ask someone to film you in action or record a virtual session you are leading so that you can see for yourself how you phrase sentences and words and how you give feedback. It is always eye-opening and surprising. You may think you are working in a certain way, but the video may show differently.
  • Be aware: If you are not keen on filming yourself, take a moment on each tour to make sure you are aware of the language you’re using. Think carefully about what you say and how you say it. If you’re new to working in this way, you may want to use thinking routines to build your confidence first.
  • Ask for feedback: I struggled with neutrality in the early days of working in a dialogue-based way in 2011 – particularly after comments that I was personally impressed with or that opened up new lines of inquiry. A teacher offered me constructive feedback on the way I responded to the students on one of the pilots for Stories Around the World and it really changed the way I thought about language. It made me think about how one overly enthusiastic response to one person can shut down the contributions for the rest of the group. 
  • Invest in professional development: I regularly teach educators and guides how to facilitate discussions with art and objects using my ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’ method. As part of these sessions (online or in-person), I spend a significant amount of time discussing the language we use with groups and practising ways to improve the way we frame subjects and facilitate discussions. Whilst the thinking routines help to provide a structure around which we can base the group discussion, the language we use as educators can have an important impact on how the conversation flows.
I have now learned to curb my enthusiasm (somewhat, not completely, I am human!) which benefits the group as a whole. The next time you are leading a discussion with a group, try to pay a little more attention to the language you use and observe what effect this has on the overall discussion and participant experience. A few small changes could yield a more open and balanced discussion for all.