How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work Seven Languages for Transformation
By Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
Kegan and Lahey begin with premise that we all have powerful inclinations not to change. They describe our immunity to change as a force of nature that they call dynamic equilibrium , a motion which takes us back to the place we were before a change. They have written this book for people interested in transformational learning, both personal and organizational. They see this as a necessary feature of effective leadership.
We are introduced to a new “technology” of seven “novel languages.” The first four internal languages build a new mental machine for our own personal learning. We learn about our own immune system and how to transcend our dynamic equilibrium. The next three interpersonal languages help our own growth, but also aid us as leaders to enhance dramatically the learning in our organizations.
The book is structured for hands on involvement. We are led step by step to complete a Four-Column Conceptual Map. Optimally, we do this in groups of two of three.
The Seven Languages:
From the Language of Complaint to the Language of Commitment
We are first asked the question, “What sorts of things—if they were to happen more frequently in your work setting—would you experience as being more supportive of your ongoing development at work?” That response usually looks a lot like a complaint, to which it is important to pay attention. But we are asked to rethink and reword the concept and place it in the first column of the map under “I am committed to the value or importance of…”
See page 30, Exhibit B, for the differences in the Language of Complaint and Commitment.
From the Language of Blame to the Language of Personal Responsibility
Next, for column two of the map, we are asked the question, “What am I doing or not doing that prevents my commitment from being fully realized?” It is natural to immediately want to solve whatever problem in unearthed here, but the authors believe it is not wise to do so too quickly, because we can learn valuable lessons from “letting the problems solve us.”
See page 45, Exhibit C, for the characteristics of the Language of Blame and Language of Personal Responsibility.
From the Language of New Year's Resolutions to the Language of Competing Commitments
We now dig deeper to discover an entry for column three of the map “I may also be committed to…” This, of course, clashes with our column-one commitment. Many times the column-three commitment is a normal human motive of self-protection, which the authors call a crucial act of self-respect, certainly not shameful. With these three entries we see the living contradiction that they call the dynamic equilibrium. It is easy to see why so many planned changes eventually fail.
See page 60, Exhibit D, for an example of a map with three columns completed by three people.
See page 65, Exhibit E, for the differences in the Language of New Year's Resolutions and the Language of Competing Commitments.
From the Language of Big Assumptions That Hold Us to the Language of Assumptions We Hold
The fourth column of the map is very revealing. It is called the Big Assumption, however, we look upon it as the truth, and our actions prove that we believe it is the truth. What we write in this column is the consequence of not living up to the commitment in column three—“I assume that if…” The consequences are almost always quite dire!
See page 78, Exhibit F, for an example of a map with four columns completed by three people.
Next, we try looking ”at, not “through” the Big Assumption. The first step is just observing ourselves for a few weeks, keeping track or what does or does not occur as a consequence of the Big Assumption. Hopefully we will have a small group of colleagues to discuss this with on a regular basis. This seems to be a critical factor for long-term transformation. Step two is actively looking for experiences that cast doubt on our Big Assumption. Step three is exploring the history of our Big Assumption. (When was it born? Where did it get its start? What early foundation did it rest on?) Step 4 is designing and running a safe, modest test of the Assumption. For example, you try out a new behavior in a staff meeting and ask a friend to give you her impressions of how others respond.
See page 86, Exhibit G, for the differences of the Language of the Big Assumptions That Hold Us and the Assumptions That We Hold.
The hope is that we will eventually work on—“a nest of Big Assumptions.” “The [hornet] nest metaphor is chosen deliberately…We may feel stung…but...[it]… also evokes a home for hatching new life.”
From the Language of Prizes and Praising to the Language of Ongoing Regard
We cannot overstate the “value of being valued.” If there is genuine expression of appreciation on a regular basis, the working atmosphere is usually very productive. If the appreciative remarks are direct and specific, they are even more powerful. The ideal time is built into staff meetings or other regular gatherings for people to express appreciation for their fellow workers.
See page 102, Exhibit H, for the differences in the Language of Prizes and Praising and the Language of Ongoing Regard.
From the Language of Rules and Policies to the Language of Public Agreement
The example discussed is an agreement to have a person who has a problem with you, come to you first, before discussing the problem with anyone else. Similar issues must be thoroughly discussed and have the general consensus of the organization. They cannot be delegated from on high. The organization takes responsibility for violations “as a learner, not a penitent.”
See page 118, Exhibit I, for the differences in the Language of Rules and Policies and the Language of Public Agreement.
From the Language of Constructive Criticism to the Language of Deconstructive Criticism
It is important to know the language of on-going regard, how to take personal responsibility, not to blame others, etc before a group has the competence for practicing a conflict-oriented language in a productive way. With respect to feedback, we think in terms of constructive and destructive. See page 127, Exhibit J. However, there is a third alternative, deconstructive criticism. See page 134, Exhibit K. It neither tears down nor builds up but disassembles—first of all, our own evaluation or judgment. It boils down to reevaluating the “I'm right” assumption on which the constructive criticism is based.
The picture on page 137 provides a fun way to show that it is not always easy to tell when you are “right.” When shown this picture, approximately, one-half of observers see a young woman and one-half see an old woman. Who is right? How long did it take you to see the one that you did not see immediately?
On page 141, Exhibit L, there are 10 deconstructive propositions. These are intentionally provocative! Try them out. They want you to think!
Since there are frequent misunderstandings about the deconstructive approach, they clarify that:
- » Your own negative evaluation is not discounted. You are both respecting yourself and the other simultaneously.
- » You are not paralyzed, unable to act. You are exploring and testing both assumptions.
- » It is normal for there to be more conflict rather than less in the short run because we are looking for learning experiences.
This seventh language “creates a context for transforming conflict into a respectable and learning-rich clash of contradictory premises, beliefs, and assumptions…now framed [to] promote learning [and are, therefore,]… an organization's assets rather than its liabilities.”
The penultimate chapter is devoted to stories of people who were able to break down their Big Assumptions. The last chapter elaborates on the last three languages, establishing the advantages of Ongoing Regard and Public Agreement, plus going into more depth on Deconstructive Criticism.
The authors have a wealth of information from their work in this area and they have great insight to human behavior. I think this is essential reading for anyone interested in transformation. For the first time, I think I understand why change is so difficult.
Last Reviewed: October 20, 2011