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How Maya Angelou will make you a better school leader

Maya Angelou was right; "people will never forget how you made them feel".

When was the last time you read something and felt really worried or annoyed by it? Maybe it was a text, or an email? Perhaps a post on Facebook or a Tweet? Or even a blog? And reading it gave you an instant reaction. You might have felt angry, or frustrated, or thought to your self, “What a cheek”. You might even have laughed out loud. When did that last happened to you?

It’s only words

How can written words evoke feelings or reactions? You’re not even in the vicinity of the writer, but their words have made you want to lash out or jump for joy.

We all read and write things pretty much on a daily basis. From the minute you get up, to the minute you go to bed. And we write too; how many times a day do you write something someone else will read? It’s an everyday part of our modern life. We Tweet, we email, we text, we WhatsApp, we Snap Chat, we send invitations, leave notes, make Power Points, write blogs, and much, much more. We might even write an old-fashioned letter.

Skip to the good bit

And how do we cope with it? We devour it; we read it all. Or do we? Maybe we just scan it and our brain picks out the important words. The words that make us feel good, safe, loved, creative, inspired and motivated or the words that make us feel scared, angry, threatened, sad, helpless or bored. Our brain is so fast and clever; most of the time it does this unconsciously. We’re not even aware that it’s sifting until we start to feel something, and then we wonder why we feel angry when reading an email sent by our boss. You have no control over this, but you can understand more about it.

Words are like predators

When we read words, the information we take in goes straight from our eyes to our brain without any analysis. The implication of the words is ‘sensed’ by the part of our brain which is concerned with our safety and survival. If it senses danger, it activates our sympathetic nervous system, unleashing a tidal wave of adrenalin and preparing our muscles and our body for fight or flight. All in less time it took you to read that last sentence.

Millions of years ago it would’ve been a predator, now it just as likely to be the words in an email, a text or Tweet. And before we know it – bam – we’re pumping adrenalin round our body, getting ready to run for our lives or to stick one on our opponent. By the time we’ve thought about the meaning of the words, our feelings are already running high, our heart is beating faster and our muscles are full of energy, twitching like mad and ready to respond. And that’s a feeling you always remember, don’t you?

We can’t help it – it’s the biology of our brain. We’re hardwired to be fearful – to keep ourselves safe – and if we see something that makes us even a tiny bit scared, we’ll react to it before we even know what is happening. Words are the modern day predator.

“Our ancestors had to pay a lot of attention to bad news because if they survived it, they had to remember it forever. Once bitten, twice shy”. Dr Rick Hanson 

So what does that mean? Every time we write something we might be frightening our staff, or annoying our friends? Well, potentially yes. We’ll certainly be communicating a subconscious message to them. You see everything we write has 2 meanings - a conscious meaning and a subconscious meaning. Our evolved brain processes the information with higher order thinking, logic and rationality. But our reptilian brain is switched on all the time too, and will process it faster with presuppositions, fear and a craving for survival. And we know this is happening when we feel our heart rate increasing, our palms getting sweaty, tingles up our spine, goose bumps, chilled – you know what that’s like don’t you?

Think about everything you write – emails, staff reports, vision statements, policies, letters – the words you use in every piece of literature you produce have a subconscious meaning to any human reading them. And the way you put them together can be really powerful. Just think about those motivational quotes you see all over the place; you might even have one on your wall –what does it say? How do you feel every time you read that?

You cannot not communicate

So every time you send some written text, how might our reptile brain interpret the signals, the presuppositions behind the words? Do you notice how you respond to written communication – what ‘gets your goat’ and what ‘floats your boat’?

The full Maya Angelou quote is “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. As a leadership development expert, I'll be using the neurology of the brain to ensure I help the next generation to learn how to lead so that “people will never forget how you made them feel" won't you?

Joyce Matthews facilitates world-class leadership development - helping individuals and businesses in China, Japan, Zambia, India, Brunei, Canada, Malta and the UK to implement her unique system. She is author of #Unschoolleaders and Inspiring #Unschooleaders. You can follow her blogs on and on Twitter @JoyceMatthews_ or @Unschoolleaders

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