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Change your talk, change your walk

Key insights for breaking patterns – the use of language

Language shapes the way we think and vice versa. Did you know for instance, that if you’d ask someone to evaluate a lesson, their answer will depend partly on what language they speak? I discovered this during class while studying English for my Cambridge Proficiency exam last fall. My teacher told us that native Spanish speakers are likely to give reasons for their opinions, while South Koreans most probably will share how the lesson made them feel. The Dutch and German are much more ‘matter-of-fact’ in the way they address things.

To improve my language, I first had to think differently before I could learn to ‘paint a picture’ with words as the native English speakers do (e.g. use more descriptive language).

This was just one example. Research has shown how language influences how people interpret events, reason about causality, experience emotion, choose to take risks, and even the way we select a job or spouse.

What does this mean for organizational or individual change?

If language, thinking and action are closely related, we should be able to change the way we ‘walk’ by changing the way we talk. One vivid example of this was given during an HSD conference I attended in Chicago by Dr. Cheung-Judge, a global authority in the field of Organizational Development (OD). In a high pressure, political environment Dr. Cheung-Judge had to inspire critical professionals into acting in a completely new way. The key turning point, simple but true was when people started talking differently about mistakes. Literally. They no longer called them ‘errors’ but reframed this by using the word ‘bleeps’ instead. At first people laughed about this, not taking any of it seriously. After a while though more and more people within teams started looking different at their ‘bleeps’. They weren’t so bad. The connotation shifted and consequently people were less afraid of making them. This had an enormous impact, creating a path towards more creativity, challenging each other and trying new behaviour all together.

It’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking, than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.

If talking is the first step into acting differently, then I certainly agree with this quote*. It is indeed much easier to just use different wording than it is to force your mind to think different things. So, especially when you feel a pattern needs to be broken in order to create something new, look at language as a first and easy step towards change. Different thoughts, feelings, perceptions and eventually internalized behaviour might follow.

  • As a coach or trainer… make others aware of the important words they are falling back on. Using words is often unconscious but as we’ve seen, profound. Help the other to see how there’s always a choice and therefore influence. One of my coachees would use the word ‘client’ often when talking about his troubled relationship with one. I asked him what it meant. Once we had figured out how dependence was one of his strong associations, he chose the word ‘customer’ and the relationship slowly but surely shifted.

  • As a leader or any professional… analyse the key words you use frequently when you talk about your company, the people, the client or your business. Just see if there’s any room for a fresh sound to it. In my role as a leader last year I tried to turn ‘Higher management’ or ‘the Board’ into calling people by their first names as a way to bridge the unwanted gap with my own team.

*The origine of this quote is not entirely clear. I thank my colleagues Didier Marlier and Chris Parker (“Engaging Leadership“) for sharing.


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