How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work

K E G A N & L A H E Y 2 0 0 1 How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work Seven Languages for Transformation The Seven Languages 1. Language o...
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How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work Seven Languages for Transformation

The Seven Languages 1. Language of Commitment 2. Language of Personal Responsibility

The Basis of the Book Kegan and Lahey (2001) suggest that in order to have change in business or our personal lives, we must first look at what we do and say that is inhibiting us from realizing those changes. Whether it is “resistance,” “denial,” “fears,” defensiveness,” or “the shadow side of personality” that is preventing transformation, most comes from within. “This book is for people interested in the possibility of their own transformational learning, as well as for people interested in supporting the transformational learning or others” (p. 2). This text is first a workbook and then a book that helps us deconstruct and reframe our struggles and goals. It also forces us to look at the “Big Assumptions” that we hold, and test the risk and rewards of changing these engrained perspectives or truths.

Three Parts Part One

Part Two

The Internal Languages: Building the New Machine

The Social Languages: Maintaining and Upgrading the Machine

Part Three Carrying on the Work

3. Language of Competing Commitments 4. Language of Assumptions We Hold 5. Language of Ongoing Regard 6. Language of Public Agreement 7. Language of Deconstructive Criticism




Part One From the Language of Complaint to the Language of Commitment

Ground Rules for Using this Book

Question for Reflection? What sort of things- if they were to happen more frequently in your work setting- would you experience as being more supportive of your on going development at work? (p. 15)

For those who are using this book as the speaker, how much or little you share of your reflections is up to you. For the listener, it’s not your job to point out what others may be missing. Choosing a partner, try to choose someone that is not a subordinate or who you have a reporting relationship with.

For example: “If I had more time. It all comes down to that” (p. 17). “I feel like we go round and round addressing the same problems at work and never really solving them” (p.17)

The Default Mode: “NBC” and “BMW” “Complaining grows on its own- and it grows everywhere, just like a weed” (p. 20).

NBC- Nagging, Bitching and Complaining BMW- Bitching, Moaning, Whining Sometimes this type of talk can be amusing, or critical, can show resentment and can come from all levels of employment from employees to employers. For example, who hasn’t heard things like: “I think she’s a jerk” or why is this crap necessary? What a waste of time!

Potential in Complaint

The Trick:

Pay attention to complaints because this is where people’s passions lie. Complaining means that people care about that area of their job and therefore it can be used positively. In offices, often there are large spread complaints, which means that by changing something could put an end to the weed that is taking over!

“Encourage people to stay with, honor and pursue further the transformative potential of their very complaints or disappointments” (p 20).





The First Language: From Complaint to Commitment When we look back at the first question that was asked: “What sort of things- if they were to happen more frequently in your work settingwould you experience as being more supportive of your on going development at work?” (p. 15), Rather than complaining about the problems, commit to something that would improve your work situation. For example, don’t complain about not having enough time, but say: I am committed to the value of time and will use PLC time effectively.

Kegan and Lahey provide a column map that enables the reader to create a useful way to journal about their commitments. Column one this refers to the language of our commitments. Using language in this way means that a person’s complaint does not lose its merit, nor does it force a person to change, but it encourages them to take a critical look at what their complaint is. It reframes the complaint into something that means a lot to that person and then through changing the language to value commitment, it becomes transformative.

Language of Complaint

Language of Commitment

• Easily and reflexively produced, widespread • Explicitly expresses what we can’t stand • Leaves the speaker feeling like a whiny cynical person • Generates frustration and impotence • Sees complaint as a signal of what’s wrong • Nontransformational

• Relatively rare unless explicitly intended • Explicitly expresses what we stand for • Leaves the speaker feeling like a person filled with conviction and hope • Generates vitalizing energy • Sees complaint as a signal of what someone cares about • Transformational (p. 30) 3




From the Language of Blame to the Language of Personal Responsibility The Second Language

Question for Reflection?

This is where each person needs to look at what they are doing that is inhibiting their commitment to be realized. For example, if a person is committed to value more open and direct communication at work, then what they are not doing is speaking up when people are violating the norm in which they value and are committed to.

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

Obscuring the Potential in Self-Responsibility

Kegan and Lahey suggest that there are limitations to just owning up to responsibility, like with out New Years resolutions, we all make them, but easily falter in maintaining what we promised to accomplish. So responsibility goes beyond taking the blame, it is more a reflection of what went wrong and providing a solution. For instance, just saying that you need to delegate more, or learn to say no merely takes away problems, but ascertains that the system is fine. Sometimes, isolating the problem is helpful to one person, but then the next person will feel the same way later on. It is like a Band-Aid solution rather than a more permanent fix.




Personal Responsibility; More than Debugging the System. If we look at all problems as simple things to be solved we may risk losing the moral of the stories. Kegan and Lahey suggest that sometimes the problems need to solve us. For instance, “(t)he problems that solve us are those from which we genuinely learn. They change the way we think” (p. 44). Teachers often assign math problems to her students, if the problems are too easy to solve, they are not good problems, but if the students are forced to stretch their math knowledge then these are good problems. Stretching what we already know or changing the approach we use is the greatest type of problem solving. We need to look at the not only the behaviors like saying no, but also the misbehaviors that prevent our commitments from being realized.

Language of Blame

Language of Personal Responsibility

• Comfortable to express • Holds the other person responsible for gaps between committed intensions and reality • Frequently generates frustration in speaker • Frequently generates defensiveness in others • Nontransformational • At best, raises questions only for others.

• Uncomfortable to express • Expresses specific behaviors we personally engage in and fail to engage in that contribute to gaps • Draws on the momentum of our commitments • Frequently generates productive conversations • Transformational • Raises questions for oneself (p. 45)






From the Language of New Year’s Resolutions to the Language of Competing Commitments Acknowledging Fears and Changing Language We often have fears or worry regarding our expectations and responsibilities at work or in life. We say things like, “well I worry he’ll think I’m not up for the job” or “I’m afraid to discover that my boss’s standards are so low” (p.48). Rather than saying things in this way the authors suggest using alternative language like: “I may be actively committed to not putting myself in a situation where I can be disappointed” or “I may be actively committed to not learning what my boss’s standards really are” (p.48). By using the latter form of language we are putting to onus on ourselves and changes our fears to manageable commitments. These commitments can be found in column three of our chart.

Language of Competing Commitments

Language of New Years • Expresses sincere and genuine intensions • Creates wishes and hopes for the future • But contains little power • Intent is to eliminate or reduce the hindering, problematic behavior • The problematic behavior is frequently regarded as a sign of weakness or shameful ineffectiveness • Assumes that eliminating the problematic behavior will lead to the accomplishment of (first column) commitments or goals • Frequently attributes less effective change to other people, obstacles or insufficient self-control • Nontransformational

Expresses genuinely held countervailing commitments • Creates an inner contradiction or map of an immune system • Contains enormous (locked up) power • Intent is to identify the source of that behavior • Identifies a commitment to selfprotection on behalf of which the problematic behavior is effective, consistent, faithful, even brilliant • Recognizes that merely trying to alter problematic behavior is unlikely to accomplish goals • Recognizes the complex, contradictory nature of one’s own intentions • Transformational (p. 65) •





From the Language of Big Assumptions that Hold Us to the to the Language Assumptions We Hold What are Big Assumptions? Assumptions are things that are thought to be true, but big assumptions, according to the Kegan and Lahey are taken as truths. For example, “that water is wet, that tables are hard” (p. 67). They explain this concept because they realize that the concepts in this book are perhaps hard to grasp or to wrap our heads around. They want to reassure us that it is merely taking a different perspective to how we see the world. Erasing some Big Assumptions with other thoughts.

“We may be inclined to feel that the world rather than our way of looking at the world has changed”

“Looking at” Versus “Looking Through” Big Assumptions Step 1: Observing Ourselves in Relation to the Big Assumption

Step 2: Actively Looking for Experiences that Cash Doubt on Our Big Assumptions

Step 3: Exploring the History of Our Big Assumptions

Step 4: Designing and Running a Safe, Modest Test of the Assumption

Why this PD is Different. Most professional development stays within the realm of Big Assumptions; it doesn’t force people to change their point of view, but rather conforms to them. This book, on the other hand, deals with ideas that are transformational and go beyond the assumptions that have already been shaped. This leads into the forth column with which we would record our assumptions. For instance, “I assume if I tell people what I really think, then I’ll be fired, unhirable, broke and my family will sleep in the streets” (p. 75).




Language of Big Assumptions That Hold Us • • • • • •


Language of Assumptions That We Hold Resolutions

Automatically produced, without intension or awareness Assumptions inhabited as truths Creates a sense of certainty, that one’s perspective is reality Anchors and sustains our immune system Names the terms by which we would understand our universe to be catastrophically disturbed or violated Nontransformational

• Produced only with difficulty, creating space between self and one’s meanings • Assumptions takes as assumptions • Creates valuable doubt, the opportunity to question, explore, test assumptions • Creates a pivotal lever for distributing out immunity of change • Makes the catastrophic consequences a proposition available for testing • Transformational (p. 86)





Part Two: Social Languages Maintaining and Upgrading the Machine Part one of the book established how our four internal languages come together to custom build our machine (metaphor for mind frame or leadership perspective), which is the new technology that will bring about transformational change. So the following chapters work to maintain the machine that has been built.

Ongoing Regard Everyone wants to feel that their work is meaningful and that they are valuable. The key here is to move from indirect, nonspecific, and awarding to attribute to direct, specific and nonattributive. Make sure to always communicate successes directly to the person and not to others. Being specific means telling that person how they have impacted the lives of others or more specifically how’s it’s affected the speaker. If we say, for example, “Joe is a great team player” this may mean something different to Joe than what was intended. Specific means remembering that each person has their own perspective and Big Assumptions, so to assure that the right message is conveyed being specific is critical. To be nonattributive the speaker must use their experience to describe what they are referring to, otherwise the positive attribute you are trying to bring forth may be lost. Also, like with relationships, avoid “you” statements, like “you always leave your clothes on the floor, it’s a mess!” Rather say, “I feel disrespected when you leave your clothes on the floor.”

No More Rules and Policy!!! Well Kind of… This section discusses how employees need to feel that the rules and policies are in place for a reason and must feel that they have a say in how they develop. Similar to how teacher’s classroom rules are created with the student’s opinions. The class discussion may commence with the teacher bringing up an idea, but the students all having the final say in what they want their classroom to look and feel like. The teacher always has the end in mind, but she let’s the students come to the rules and policies of the class on their own. This is similar to any business, the rules and policies should feel that they are of public agreement, not that they re being dictated. When there is public agreement there is organizational integrity and not only individual integrity. Like the classroom, all the kids know the rules that they have created, so if one person breaks them, they bring the entire classroom down. 9




Feedback and Conflict The book has finally arrived at the intriguing area of CONFLICT… Kegan and Lahey state, “we believe the practice of productive conflict is a high art” (p. 122) Therefore, it is not how to develop the cleanest and fairest way to fight through issues, but rather to find an opportunity for individual and group growth. Conflict must not be a series of blows back and forth and tit for tat arguments, until all has been laid out on the table, this will surely fail. Since we know that all parties have their own point of view in regards to their values, there is continued conflict often because there are two perspectives that clash. Feedback is often an area where conflict ensues. Psychologist Weisinger (1990) shows a theory of good and bad feedback (p. 127). Constructive Feedback

Destructive Feedback

• Specific: The manager says exactly what the person is doing wrong • Supportive: Gives the sense that the criticism is meant to help the person do better • Problem solving: Suggests a solution or offers help to find a way to improve • Timely: Gives the message soon after the problem occurs

• Vague: Offers no specifics, but makes a blanket condemnation • Blames the person: Attributes the problem to personality or an unchangeable trait • Threatening: Makes the person feel attacked • Pessimistic: Offers no hope for change or suggestion for doing better.

In Human Resource Management (2009), like Weisinger, suggests, the need for constructive feedback from manager to employee is necessary. Steen, Noe, , Hollenbeck, Gerhart., Wright claim, (t)he discussion should include specific discussion of areas in which the employee’s performance met, exceeded and fell short of expectations. Any areas of required improvement should lead to problem solving” (p. 281). Kegan and Lahey agree that this is constructive feedback and that if necessary they would use constructive rather than destructive feedback, but they also believe that there is an alternative to both (p. 128). Constructive criticism given from a supervisor makes is seem that there is only one right answer and that it belongs to the supervisor. This leads us back to the idea of the Big Assumptions. Businesses often have invested interest in these truths and therefore new ideas that employees have and are said to be supported is not the case. 10




Deconstructive Criticism Kegan and Lahey suggest that rather than putting a person down and then building them back up with constructive criticism, we should change the entire structure by “stepping back not from our negative evaluations, but from a truth-claiming relationship to our negative judgments” (p. 133). They call this deconstruction because the idea is not to rip down or rebuild, but instead to disassemble and this begins with the judgment or evaluation itself. This means going back to our Big Assumptions with which keeps the equilibrium in place. Kegan and Lahey think that by keeping equilibrium and truths in place then there will always be the same reoccurring conflicts.

Deconstructive Propositions: What are your reactions to these suggestions? 1. There is probable merit to my perspective. 2. My perspective may not be accurate. 3. There is some coherence, if not merit, to the other person’s perspective. 4. There may be more than one legitimate interpretation. 5. The other person’s viewpoint is important information to my assessing whether I am right or identifying what merit there is to my view. 6. Our conflict may be the result of the separate commitments each of

7. Both of us have something to learn from the conversation. 8. We need to have two-way conversations to learn from each other. 9. If contradictions can be a source of our learning, then we can come to engage not only internal contradictions as a source of learning but interpersonal contradictions (i.e. “conflict”) as well. 10. The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and the other as meaning makers.




Part Three: Running the Social Languages Carrying on the Work Coming to Grips with Inner Contradictions and Big Assumptions What do I notice happens or doesn’t happen as a result of holding my assumption as true?

What experiences do I notice that may suggest that my assumptions are inaccurate?

What did I learn from my test? What next would I like to test and uncover? Maybe I can write a “biography” of my Big Assumptions. I should design a test that is valid, with no large risks, and actionable to test my assumptions.





Final Thoughts The first two parts of this book provided the tools to use seven new means of innerternal and external communication. Kegan and Lehey encouraged the reader to look at how they set goals, lead meetings, create mission statements, etc and then provided the tools to use in order to create a more positive and commitment based approach. The final section provided a deconsructionalist approach to the issues. Kegan and Lahey want us all to look at the Big Assumptions that we hold; for example, the supervisor’s way is the right way. Then they want us to change or dismantle these assumptions and develop new ways of dealing with conflict, assessment and critique.

Ashley Wagner EADM 826.3 June 9, 2012 Book Review University of Saskatoon


I really appreciated the idea of not just changing from within the system that exists, but changing the system. The only negative critique that I have is that this entire concept may be difficult for all people to relate to or be willing to adopt. This is due to the transformative change at all levels. I would recommend this book to any organization that is looking for a transformative type of professional development. If you are struggling with accomplishing your goals, or conflict with others within the organization this book pertains especially to you.

Kegan, R. Lahey, L. 2001. How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation.San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Stabile, Susan J. 2008, Google Benefits or Google’s Benefit? Journal of Business & Technology Law, 3(1), 97-107. Steen, S.L., Noe, R.A., Hollenbeck, J.R., Gerhart,B., Wright, P.M. (2009). Human Resource Management. (2nd Canadian Edition). Toronto, ON: McGraw Hill Ryerson.