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How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Live

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Live
  • Why is it that even your most honest and committed attempts to change, often lead back to the status quo?
  • Why are outcomes so frequently pale compared to the vivid color of the aspiration?
  • How can you avert the grip of your immunity to change?
  • Imagine what would be possible if, for a change, you could live up to your New Year's Resolutions?

This post will provide you with a mental framework for achieving lasting change and delivering on your commitments to change your behavior, to change how you relate to others, to change "hard-wired" aspects of how you operate. 

Sadly, there is not a magic pill nor a quick fix. To get long-term value out of this post, you must put in the work. I highly recommend following along by completing the exercises as you read the post. To help with the exercises and the follow-up over the next three months (yes, you heard that correctly); I have created a template which you will find a bit further down. The Word and PDF templates are static, the Roam Research template includes some elements that will help you with the follow-up.

I base the article on the book "How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work" by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. I first read their book about 17 years ago and have regularly returned to it ever since. In the post title, I changed "Work" to "Life" because in my experience this is relevant in all aspects of life, not just work.

Dynamic equilibrium
Photo by Daniel Navarro from Pexels


Three major forces are shaping your life. 

  • Entropy: The unfortunate reality that our bodies, our organizations, our creations, the world are in constant decay. 
  • Negentropy: The recognition that we have the special ability to learn and develop throughout our life. Even as our bodies deteriorate, our thinking and personality may mature. 
  • Dynamic equilibrium: This third force is less known and less talked about. You could think of it as our immune system that counteracts change. This immune system keeps us alive, however, it can also stand in the way of our development. Often even the most honest and forceful attempts to change ourselves or our communities lead back to the status quo. This applies to all aspects of our life, be it our habits, our thinking, our relationships, or our behavior.

The language you are using to describe your experiences and feelings has a profound impact on the opportunities you see. This is true for you as an individual and for you as a leader. If you are a leader, however, you have greater responsibility, because you have a significant impact on the language used in your community. The only question is if you are deliberate or ignorant about this aspect of your leadership. 

By adopting certain forms of language, you can distance yourself from the grip of your own and your communities' immunity to change. You can achieve lasting change through the adoption of seven transformational languages:

  • Four internal languages: from complaint to commitment, from blame to personal responsibility, from New Year's resolutions to competing commitments, and from Truths that hold us to assumptions we hold.
  • Three social languages: from prizes and praising to ongoing regard, from rules and regulations to public agreements, and from constructive criticism to deconstructive criticism.

Today I will focus on the four internal languages. In the course of the next few minutes, you will build a mental machine - taking the form of a table with four columns - that you can use to break the grip of your immunity to change. Here is the worksheet that you can use to complement the post.

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Live - Worksheet template

1. From the Language of Complaint to the Language of Commitment

Exercise 1

Answer the following question: What sort of things, if they were to happen more frequently in your work setting, would you experience as being more supportive of your own ongoing development at work?

  • Alternatively, if you find it easier, you can instead answer an alternative question: What sorts of troubling, diminishing, or constraining things, if they were to happen less frequently, would you find more supportive of your development?
  • Replace "at work" with whatever context applies to you: "at school", "at home", etc.
  • As you answer the question(s) don't edit your responses based on reasonableness, possibility, or likelihood. The question creates a thinking exercise.
Hour glass

Here are some example responses:

  • I could develop if I would receive more positive feedback and encouragement from my boss and my peers.
  • If I had more resources available such that I would not have to work overtime. If I could deliver on my tasks and still have time and energy to take on additional responsibilities that would broaden my skills and experience, or have time to take part in learning experiences.
  • If I would be empowered to act and not be burdened with office politics and bureaucracy.

These questions usually trigger a torrent of complaints, resentments, and blame. You are not getting enough support. You are not being recognized. You do not have access to the right resources. You lack empowerment. You are stuck with incompetent peers or subordinates, and the list goes on.

The language of complaint is widespread. It may feel good to let off steam, but complaints leave the speaker and the audience emotionally depleted.

When someone complains to you, or when you complain to yourself, you typically employ one of two primary strategies. You ignore it or you become preoccupied with it. However, there is a third alternative that harnesses the emotional energy of the complaints, to use it as a gateway to articulate what you feel deeply committed to. To identify what is profoundly important to you. Surely, you would not complain about something if it wasn't important to you.

Stifling your complaints will solve nothing. You should honor your feelings by shifting your language to the language of commitments. Expressing commitments will leave you with momentum, energy, and hope. It will enable you to reshape how you experience yourself. Instead of seeing yourself as disappointed, complaining, wishing, and critical, you will feel committed, a person who holds convictions about what is most valuable, most precious, and what deserves to be promoted or defended. It is a shift from what you "can't stand" to what you "stand for".

Exercise 2

Behind each complaint, there is something that you are deeply committed to but cannot realize to the extent you would want to. Take your responses to Exercise 1 and complete the following sentence for each: "I am committed to the importance and value of... "

Hour glass

Here are some examples based on the responses to Exercise 1:

Example responses exercise 2

2. From the Language of Blame to the Language of Personal Responsibility

Almost always we place the responsibility for not having our commitments met outside of ourselves. It is because of the circumstances. If only my boss would support me. If my spouse would (not) do this or that. If I had more money, more time, etc. While often you are not the only party responsible for your commitments not being met, it is unlikely that you do not have at least a small contribution yourself. I ask you now to focus on that potentially small contribution. Your contribution.

To be fair, you would probably not be reading this post if you were not interested in self-improvement. Therefore, my assumption is that you are already doing lots of things to achieve your commitments. Notice how Exercise 3 is not asking what you are already doing, but what you are doing or not doing that is keeping you from having your commitment fully realized.

Exercise 3

What are you doing, or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized?

Hour glass

Here are some example responses following the threads from above.

Example responses Exercise 3

The key here is to define your personal responsibility, to find how you are stopping your commitments from being fully realized.

Now that you have identified what you are doing wrong, you might be tempted to fix it. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the aim is not to solve the problem quickly. If you resolve the issue quickly, then you and your environment will probably emerge unchanged and will produce the same problems in the future. Instead, the goal is to express the problem in such a way that it transforms you by providing a development opportunity.

3. From the Language of New Year’s Resolutions to the Language of Competing Commitments

Stopping yourself from fulfilling your commitments, or the lack of trying to fulfill them, maybe the symptom of one or more hidden commitments. Often stemming from a deeply held fear, these commitments act as a self-protective mechanism to avoid an undesirable outcome or to protect yourself from an unwanted, unhappy scenario. By identifying the fears that may be behind your column two answers, you can use them as a gateway to identify your hidden commitments. Just like your explicit commitments, these hidden commitments also consume your creative energy as you are constantly on the lookout to avoid the thing you are afraid of happening.

Only targeting the inaction or the counteraction against your stated commitment would bring about temporary change. Your hidden commitments will drive new behaviors to reinstate the equilibrium.

The hidden commitments you uncover should feel uncomfortable and even creepy. These are often commitments that you would not be comfortable making public. These are commitments that will shape your actions.

Exercise 4

Look at your answers to Exercise 3. See if you can identify any fear or discomfort with doing other than what you have answered (column 2 in the template). Write this in column 3 as a commitment that you might be holding to prevent the thing which you are afraid of from happening. "I may also be committed to..."

Hour glass

Here are some example responses:

Example responses Exercise 4

By uncovering these hidden commitments, your actions in column 2 become perfectly reasonable results of your self-protective mechanism. Now that you have documented your stated commitments (column 1), the things you do to prevent them from being realized (column 2), and your hidden commitments (column 3), you have visibility into your immune system against change. Disrupt this by applying the fourth language.

4. From the Truths that Hold Us to the Assumptions We Hold

Your hidden commitments in column 3 are backed up by "big assumptions". Assumptions that you hold as Truth. These are deeply held assumptions. Questioning these will spark fear and discomfort. However, these might be the very assumptions that block you from achieving your commitments in column 1. 

Exercise 5

To uncover your big assumptions, articulate your column three commitment as an assumption. 

  • If in column 3 you have a negative commitment (e.g., "I'm committed to not being seen as boastful"), then remove the negative and form a sentence like this: "I assume that if I were to be seen as a boastful, then ..."
  • If there is no negative (e.g., "I may also be committed to pretending that I am invincible") then add negative wording like this: "I assume that if I did not pretend to be invincible, then ..."

Once the assumptive sentence is ready, complete the sentence quickly and honestly: How will I feel, then?

Hour glass

Example responses:

Example responses Exercise 5

Our big assumptions usually share one common feature, at the end of the sentence the consequences stated are usually quite dire. I assume that if this thing were to happen that I have long been working hard to keep from happening, then . . . er, well, . . . I would just die! (or: . . . someone else would just die! or: . . . it would be the end of the world!)

Having your big assumptions out in the open, literally in front of you, you can create a relationship with them. You can observe them. You can look for experiences that cast doubt on them. You can explore their history and can devise safe tests to test if the assumptions are accurate.

Stopping here, having your mental machine documented in the four columns will lead to no long-term improvement. Your mind will repress your new understanding and within days you will struggle to even remember what your big assumptions were. You need structures to keep them at the forefront of your mind. These structures can be support groups or could even be your diary.

Creating a Distance Between Yourself and Your Big Assumptions

Here's a four-step program for creating distance between yourself and the big assumptions that hold you back. Each step is a tiny move forward in widening the gap. Each takes a couple of weeks to a month to complete.

In the Roam template accompanying this post, I have provided a set of Delta (∆) functions to plant reminders in your daily notes over the next period that you can use as prompts in your daily journal. If you do not have Roam, I recommend that you place reminders in your calendar for each of these actions, and/or you take your paper journal and mark future pages with these actions. Unless you are very deliberate, your immune system will quickly erase the memory of the uncovered big assumptions competing with your stated commitments.

Step One: How do your big assumptions affect you?

Do not aim to change your big assumptions just yet. Keep track of what does or does not occur because of holding your big assumptions true. Record in your diary or share your observations with your partner. Where else in your life have you noticed your big assumption driving your actions?

Step Two: Actively look for experiences that cast doubt on your big assumptions

Still, do not seek to change your big assumptions yet. Lookout for any experiences that cast some doubt on the truthfulness of your big assumptions. Make note of these experiences or share them with your partner.

Step Three: Explore the history of your big assumptions

Reflect on the "biography" of your big assumptions. When was it born? How long have you lived with this assumption? Where do you think it got its start? What early, and possibly not recently experienced foundation does it rest on? How satisfactory a foundation does this seem to you to be in the present day?

Step Four: Design and run a safe test of your big assumptions

Design a modest, safe test of your big assumption. Change perhaps something in your behavior and ask your partner, a friend, or colleague to provide you with impressions and feedback when you run your experiment. Note down your own observations.

Closing thoughts

By modeling your mental machine and completing the above four-step program, you can build distance between yourself and your big assumptions. This will usually not mean that you completely abandon your big assumption, instead, you will add qualifiers to it. The good news is that even slight changes in our big assumptions can have big implications for permanently altering your once-captivating equilibrium.

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