Tag Archives: Lisa Lahey

Language Shifts and The Snowplow

14 Apr

I was thinking today about the influential book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Lisa Lahey and Bob Kegan. It suggests ways that slight shifts in tone or nuance or perspective can more or less instantly transmute a difficult or problematic context into a productive one.

The shifts come in the realm of language. Lahey and Kegan suggest you can move easily from a way of talking that’s less productive to one that’s more productive. There are multiple pre-fabricated language movements you can make. My favorite example? Complaint.

With very little effort, the language of complaint (limiting) can be modulated into the language of commitment (inspiring). How? Well the leverage point or hinge is to know that both languages have buried in them a sense of values, a longing, an ethics, a desire for a certain way of life, a need to be connected or valued. In the language of complaint these virtuous components are kind of hidden or implied, but in the language of commitment they are the message itself.

For example, let’s say I don’t feel like my boss gives me enough opportunities to take charge of a project, to show what I can do, to stretch, to lead. If I focus on how bad that makes me feel, and if I don’t talk to her about it directly–“My boss won’t let me try anything new, she doesn’t value me, etc”–that’s the language of complaint. But the point here is that wanting to be trusted with leadership roles, that’s a positive thing, that’s a virtue buried in the complaint–and that’s worth talking about. It shows a path towards a different kind of relationship with your boss, one your boss might even like. Or at least be willing to try out with you. Rephrasing in terms of commitment would look something like this: “Hi boss! I would really like to have a chance to lead a project. I feel I can do a good job for the organization, and it would feel good to see the organization supporting my growth. I realize there’s some risk here because I’ve not led a project before. Can we discuss it?”

The second option, though it has the same, as it were, problem-DNA (not getting to lead a project) as the original phrasing, has a different solution-DNA: it posits a completely different world view. One where organizational and individual growth are both possible. As opposed to one where the organization is seen (by the complainer) to proscribe the individual’s development possibilities.

The shift is as simple as using different words! Ok, it’s more complicated than that. Of course, you’re thinking, there is a different way of thinking going on in the two languages. A different way of thinking, a different way of being with people, a different comfort with risk, a different role for the self, a different assumption about what should happen at work . . . a lot of things. It is a language shift, because you are changing the words you use. But much more is shifting, too. In this way it reminds me of downhill skiing pedagogy. When you learn to downhill ski, you are often taught (among other things) to just look where you want to go–that is, you turn your head to face the place you want to go–whereupon your legs and feet and hips and skis and the slope all align as it were magically to get you there. This language shift is like that. You shift your words, and the rest clicks in. The point is you get there.

I will speak to one other point, which seems important, if tangential. One of the things governing the language of complaint is fear; the language of commitment exposes fear to sunlight, and that can be scary. When we complain, something is bothering us. We don’t feel good. But, importantly, there’s the potential of a worse feeling resulting from any action that keeps us from doing anything about it. In our example, the complainer doesn’t like not being trusted to lead. But if he talks about it with the boss, he might find out that the boss really doesn’t think he’s capable. That would be hard to bear. Worse still, if he asks to lead, he might get to lead! And then there’s a chance he might publicly fail. And that would be the hardest to bear of all. Hard enough to bear that even the specter of the possibility of having to experience it keeps the complainer comfortably tucked in his language of complaint, even though it’s no fun either. It’s a known and manageable discomfort.

It would take quite a little bit of introspection for our complainer to catch himself in this loop and work his way out; Lahey and Kegan’s “language” shift offers him an easy get-out-of-jail-free card. He can look back from having successfully led a project and wonder how he got there.

 

The Second Phase of Creation

12 Aug

When you think about doing new things, there are a few phases. Four, by my count. First comes the part where you conceive of the thing to do–call it the idea phase. In the beginning there was the word, etc. Then there’s a phase where you actually do the thing you conceived of. The doing phase, which is number three. These two phases are self-evident I think to most people, and I’m not going talk about them here, although I note they get really interesting as you peer into them (How do you actually get that idea? What is it you’re doing, when you’re doing, anyhow? Is there any thinking happening in there during that doing? Etc.)

Less obvious than these is a post-doing phase, phase four, where you reflect on how the thing went and look for ways to improve before you try it again. This phase is crucial because with it comes the feedback loop that is at the heart of all learning and improvement, and that turns your isolated action into something that can grow in meaning and value indefinitely and form associations with other things and attract people and change them and be changed by them and on and on in wondrous convolutions and permeations of beauty influencing beauty forever. Having a loop is really the only way to (eventually) achieve goodness and approach perfection, in my opinion, contrary to the semi-conscious belief of many that excellence precipitates from nothing with no precedent. That good teachers are born, not made, etc. I am not sure you can be or do absolute good; but you can improve relative to yourself, and you should focus on that.

I could talk a lot more about this reflection or feedback phase, as I love it dearly, but I won’t, because I would rather draw attention to a phase between the idea phase and the doing phase–which makes it phase two–a phase that is in my opinion the least well known, and least respected, and most suspected, but it’s important, and it’s poised for a comeback, and it’s worth thinking about.

In phase two, which is hard to name, you go from idea to endeavor. And to bridge that chasm you do a certain kind of applied abstraction, or practical dreaming, or ethical scheming. A spiritual machination, maybe. You continue the generative feeling of the creative thinking mode that started the whole thing and produced the wondrous idea you’re working with, but you begin to arc that generation towards your actual physical, local, empirically-confirmed environment with its tangible stuff and laws and real people and moods and everything.

First you start by asking my favorite kinds of questions: “OK, about this new idea. If we did this, just what would it look like?” Or, “Imagine we did this–how would it feel?” Etc. The answers usually come in little pieces that you build slowly into a larger picture that becomes clearer and clearer and more palpable and more real.

And as it becomes clearer and clearer, look out. Experience teaches me that this is the place where people start to get nervous. The idea was no threat as long as it was just a crazy idea. But now it’s growing into reality–particularly if you’re doing a good job of answering the “what would it look like” questions–and it’s starting to bump into people’s assumptions about life. It’s amazing how easily the defensive mechanisms are triggered in this regard–as soon as the slightest whiff of palpable novelty is intuited, up go the hackles. Why? Who knows–the imagined thing could change the existing power dynamic, we could be asked to do something we’re not good at, the things we think we care about might suffer, someone might say we’re incompetent, it might take more energy than we currently choose to expend, it might put us out of a job, etc.

Usually you don’t even know what is so threatening about the idea. Often the toes being stepped on are so buried in the sand that the articulated objection spurred by them seems disconnected and comes across as irrational. Did I say sometimes? It might be more than sometimes. I’m not attacking this quality of self-preservation (see Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change for an examination of it and a praise of it and a way to work through it), I’m just noting that this is where it comes in.

In any event, after this nervous and visceral, slightly animalistic reaction (which happens to us all, I might note, me as much as anyone), this part of phase two often salvages itself by what David Perkins calls “bracketing,” or asking people to put aside objections to just float along in the happy land of possibilities for a bit longer. This simple move is surprisingly effective–who wouldn’t ride with Willy Wonka on the boat a bit just to see what happens? It’s also akin to the magical cape of the bullfighter. “I’m not going to argue with you about that thing you think,” you’re saying. “It might be right, who knows. I’m just asking you to imagine this very interesting thing over here . . .” Wave of cape. Bracketing comes in handy: without out you can’t keep going.

Keep going, that is, to the bricolage stage, where another fun thing happens: you start to look for ways to interweave reality and your idea. Outlets to plug your idea into; bits of spare fabric in which to clothe it. You ask “What do we have lying around that might be put to use? What existing knowledge, procedures, resources, ideas, experiences?”

Here to my eternal delight we get to have a Rumpelstiltskin moment and to transform mundane things into nifty things. Nifty because they buttress your new idea. Here we find resources forgotten, ideas never hatched, people’s skills untapped, cheap back-door strategies, etc. And we see how we can put them to use. It’s as if the unappreciated constellations reform themselves into new provocative shapes right on the faded star map and right in front of our eyes. This transmutation, repurposing, reuse, resuscitation, re-constellation of old stuff is just fun–addictive really–it might even be the main reason people ever want to do new things. Why? Maybe because it means the world is generative, restorative, salvageable; that there’s eternal capacity for creativity, growth, development. That we’re not actually after all trapped, doomed, predetermined, constrained, and locked in a pit of inescapable despair. Maybe because if you can re-associate the stuff around you, it means you’re alive. I’m not sure.

Anyhow, the end of phase two is marked by another particular kind of question that I love. This is the classic “What’s the first step?” Or the “What achievable thing can we practically do, now?” Key here for me is the now part–that is, doing that accessible thing right then. There does seem to be a kind of clock ticking. And there is the sense that if you don’t act, that bracket that temporarily held back all the objections to the idea will start to loose structural integrity like Star Trek shields, and will no longer be able to fend off the glittering blob of worry pressing in through the windows and under the doors.

But I won’t follow that thought, because here we are at the end of phase two. Of course once you do something, even just the first accessible step, you’re technically in phase three, doing, which I said I wouldn’t talk about. So ends my blog post: think about this phase the next time you set about doing something new, and see if you can’t see it at play.