When Genesis describes God creating the universe, God is speaking the world into existence. “Let there be…” In the beginning was “the Word”, John tells us. There is great significance to what we say and how we say it. We may not speak as people with the authority to command all of nature into its places, but make no mistake, the words that you use help to create your reality. This is another assumption of Appreciative Inquiry.
In several other posts, we’ve looked at the importance of finding what is best about our group or organization, accentuating it, focusing on it, and bringing it forward with us into the future. One of the key creators of life and culture is the language we use to describe it. In many ways, the language we use shapes our perception of reality.
Anthropologists have documented an astounding number of words that Eskimos use for snow. One word refers to soft falling snow, another to snow that’s good for driving sleds, another for crystalline powder snow that resembles salt. There are more than fifty.
To a degree, it’s true that they probably have more words for snow because they deal with so much of it. But when you have more than fifty categories in your head for what snow can be, it must be significant. It would mean that if I were to walk for a snowy mile-long stretch with an Eskimo, even if we walked the same space, we would have had an entirely different experience because of our lenses for interpretation. The same would be true if the Eskimo went with me into a guitar store where I might like an American Deluxe Strat with a humbucker in the bridge position, a phase toggle button on the volume knob, a rosewood fretboard with a beveled neck access, locking tuners and a roller nut, and he might chime in that he likes “the red one.”
Language shapes our perception of reality and how we receive it, but it also helps shape what reality will be for those around us. If you have a frustration over something related to your spouse, it makes a big difference whether you talk about a specific action (“I’m really frustrated that the dishwasher didn’t get unloaded after I requested that it be done. Will you please take care of it?”) versus a criticism (“Well, well…looks like the dishwasher didn’t get unloaded. Again. But I’m not surprised. You never help with anything!”). The issue would be the same, but would one of those statements not evoke from you a very different response than the other?
In his excellent book Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdani shares a story about a healthcare company he visited where they had invited him to speak. The company was award-winning and known for having an excellent business culture. He was shocked that as he prepared to give his speech, they informed him he was not allowed to use “bullet points” or to talk about “attacking a problem.” Their reasoning was that as a healthcare company, their commitment was to healing, so they were disciplined in never using language associated with harm or violence. For example:
- Instead of bullet points, they had information points.
- Instead of attacking problems, they approached problems.
- Instead of targets, they had goals.
- Instead of trying to beat their competition, they tried to outpace them.
Cialdani goes on to cite several studies that link the kids of words used around a person to the kind of performance they produce. Subconsciously, we are always thinking about what words we are hearing. This means that other people are doing the same. Your word choices matter.
At my church, we’ve been working hard on congregational goals. Some of these goals, we believe, would necessitate more building space which has led us to a campaign to raise funds for a multipurpose building. In the last several months, we have spoken and spoken about our Common Ground campaign, the subtext of which is His Heart, Our Hands. I spent a few months preaching on the theme, with the last four lessons expounding on our goals one at a time. They are part of our announcement slides and are printed in our bulletin every week. We refer to them often in public address. It has made a difference in our church to remind ourselves frequently that we exist to carry out with our hands the mission of God’s heart. Regardless of what numeric goals we do or do not achieve, our people feel much more united in purpose right now and there is a palpable excitement about what God is doing and can do.
God had it right in Deuteronomy 11:
18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.
Appreciative Inquiry assumes correctly that the language we use creates our reality. What words surround you will determine what you experience, how you feel about it, and how you respond to it. When the words that surround you are words that bring life, and the words you speak are words that give life, you’ll see the life around you start to tip in the direction of hope and abundance.
- Do your common ways of speaking about yourself or your organization align well with your greater goals and purposes?
- Are there subliminal ruts you could be creating by your choice of wording?
- Do you view your family members through a positive or negative lens? Do you tell your shared story in a positive light of the good things you’ve shared or a negative dwelling on the problems that bug you?
- Do you speak of your mission and future possibilities, or only of your preferences and your present frustration?
- What are the thoughts you repeat again and again? What are the posters on your walls, the inscriptions on your bracelets, and the small framed ideas on your desk?
Other posts about Appreciative Inquiry you may enjoy:
- Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry
- #1 – In every organization, some things work well
- #2 – What we focus on becomes our reality
- #3 – Asking questions influences the group being questioned
- #4 – People are more confident moving forward when they can bring along parts of the past
- #5 – When we bring parts of the past into the future, they should be the best parts
- #6 – It is important to value differences
- #7 – Organizations are like plants. They grow toward what gives them life
- #8 – The language we use creates our reality
- #9 – In a change process, outcomes should be useful
- #10 – In a change process, all steps should be collaborative
- Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change: A Case Study
- Dr. Jason Bybee’s use of Appreciative Inquiry in learning about how Discipleship works
Thanks, very interesting.
I went to training several times in what was called Verbal Judo. How you say things is important. In the Probation Officer Safety module I wrote for the Probation Training Academy in Huntsville, I related a technique a New York cop used when coming into a heated family disturbance. He would knock on the door and begin by fanning himself with his hat and panting. He talked about the flights up or the heat or what ever and would ask for a glass of water. It would tend to change the atmosphere a bit. I for one tend to open my mouth and say stuff without a filter. Thanks for your thoughtful article. They are always edifying. Joe
I have the book on Verbal Judo! Some good principles there. I’ve done quite a bit of study of rhetoric. Very useful to know when people are trying to use persuasive techniques on you! Thanks for reading, Joe.