February 18, 2011
‘King’s Speech’ addresses our own ability to change
George is a client in my leadership and communication coaching practice. A few weeks ago, he sent an e-mail asking if I had seen “The King’s Speech.” The message struck me because, earlier that day, another client had said to me: “Drew, you need to see that movie. It reminds me of what you do.” After I saw it (and loved it), I understood what my clients saw.
“King’s Speech” takes us back to pre-World War II England and documents the relationship between the Duke of York (played by Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the latter a speech therapist engaged after numerous other professionals failed to help the prince deal with a childhood stutter. As he was put more in the public light to speak, more and more personal and national embarrassment followed.
Something had to change. As Firth and Rush meet to talk for the first time, the stutter is both obvious and painful. But, as you watch the scene, the stuttering, and how both characters deal with it, reveals a fundamental truth of how we can change things about us. Or choose not to.
The prince stubbornly insists, “I stammer! ... No one can fix it!” Logue is not only unfazed by his client’s resistance to explore changing, but is determined to show him a path forward that he can’t see. “Do you stammer when you think? ... Everyone natters occasionally. Do you stammer then?” When the prince admits that he does not, Logue challenges him to engage in an exercise that ultimately changes everything. And for those of us paying attention, that exercise can help us resolve our own conflict between our longing to change and our insistence that we can’t.
What the exercise reveals to the prince and to you and me is that we largely determine our actions through the language we choose when we talk to ourselves (aka “nattering”). If we can choose, at the right moment, to create and to pay attention to self-directed language that encourages energy and practical optimism, we will, only then, discover how to make things better.
The prince is, as are most people I meet, resistant to working on how he communicates with himself as the way to change how others see him. As the exercise concludes, he insists, “I don’t feel this is for me.” But, soon enough, circumstances force him back toward the need for change. As the saying goes that drives my work, “The teacher appears when the student is ready, and not a moment before.” Even then, the prince and his wife insist that Logue must limit his coaching to physical techniques only. Logue knows that the solution lies “below the surface” of easy tricks and mechanics, and persists in guiding his client deeper and, ultimately, more practically, to answer the question of what he believes about himself. Sure enough, it comes to his choice to speak loudly and clearly: “I HAVE A VOICE.”
Stuttering, we now know, is a developmental disorder with both genetic and neurophysiologic causes. But think of the stutter of the duke — the future King George VI — as a metaphor for all of our locked-up potential, and the movie takes on even greater depth and meaning.
In this awards season, it is good to remember, whether they receive a gold statuette or not, that movies have the unique power to point us back toward ourselves. George (my client, not the king) found that out. After watching “The King’s Speech,” one cannot help at least momentarily questioning the effects that the language in our heads has on our lives. How many times have you confronted the possibility of changing something about yourself or an idea, only to silently declare to yourself, and then out loud: “That’ll never work … I can’t do that.” Or one of my favorites: “People never change; why should I try?” The power to help determine our future lies in this thinking. It is a blessing and curse of being human. As Harvard neuroscientist Dan Gilbert put it so beautifully:
“The human brain is the only object in the known universe that can predict its own future and tell its own fortune. The fact that we can make disastrous decisions even as we foresee their consequences is the great, unsolved mystery of human behavior. When you hold your fate in your hands, why would you ever make a ﬁst?”
I often see this happen as I listen to people think out loud about their public speaking abilities. Similar to the future king of England’s beliefs, most executives and professionals I meet see public speaking as a vivid image of failure, embarrassment and nerves. Such self-statements lock them into mis-preparation, mediocre and boring performance, and a loop of repeated doubt and fear. As you see in the film, change can only be had by the hard work of shifting the language you choose to describe what you face. Only when you do that, do you discover new possibility.
As the credits and accolades roll for “The King’s Speech,” why don’t you try something new and challenging? Whether it’s about a presentation or something else, choose an issue in your life that you’d like to make better. Now pause for a moment and listen to yourself. What are you saying that creates possibility rather than tightens your fist? Hint: Replace your declarations with genuine questions to ask yourself and others. Questions allow you to take real action.
The prince and Logue did it with a bet on “Hamlet,” headphones and a Silvertone phonograph. What are you going to do to make things better? Or are you even going to try?