Every year at this time my wife, Beth, and I get away to spend a little time together to relax, recall, reflect, and recommit. It is a special time, an annual milestone if you will, and a time to re-baseline our plan for the coming year. As is standard practice, we set some goals for the new year that will require certain changes in behavior. We are deliberate in making these commitments to ourselves and to each other so that collectively we agree to help each other be aware and responsible. Hold on to those words, aware and responsible-they are going to come up again.
This year, instead of some of the more physically challenging New Year’s resolutions like eating better or working out, I’ve decided to do a little work from the inside out. I’m going to watch what comes out of my mouth rather than what goes in it. I plan to recommit to using words that are open, internal, and reflect choice. Keep those words in mind too. We’ll combine them with the two from above.
I am a big believer in the power of words and in fact receive a daily dose fromA.Word.A.Day to keep my vocabulary challenged and fresh. What I find most interesting about words is how they can be used to optimally express my true intent when communicating. The more specific the word, the more specific the meaning, which hopefully better expresses intent. I find that it is easy to get lazy with the use of certain words that, over time, program beliefs and behaviors we might not consciously choose.
While it may be true that many words are colloquially used interchangeably, I contend that the subtle differences in the undertones or implicit meanings of words set a framework for our actions and values. And when it comes to programming our core system, our operating system, we can’t be too careful with the quality of our code.
Furthermore, the words we choose and use not only program ourselves, but, with habitual use, also affect those we speak with regularly. Consistent use of a certain style or flavor of words sets an expectation in others that becomes their filter through which our words are heard. This filter in turn predisposes their interpretation of our words, often in spite of our best intentions. Choose your words carefully because over time they will establish the way you think, act, and are perceived.
In a previous article, Measure What Matters, I spoke about a few of these words and how I was deliberate with my daughters in using words that are open to the possibilities, represent internal motivation, and express personal choice. These words develop awareness and responsibility in the person speaking the words and builds trust in the person hearing the words.
Words may appear similar on the surface but underneath, and especially through repetition, they subtly program the speaker and the receiver differently. So, by pre-programming myself consciously to use these words, I am programming others’ subconscious perception. They learn to expect a certain perspective from me that is open, responsible, and conscious, setting the stage for better interactions. Let’s look at some of these words.
Open vs. Closed
Closed words limit possibilities by expressing a situation as absolute or pre-judged. Rarely is anything absolute or without possibility. Plus, absolute and judgmental words are indicative of a closed mind, a prime target for practicing some challenging inquiry that can loosen even the tightest grip on these unrealities. My ears perk up whenever I hear words like always and never because I know that within them is the opportunity for new thinking that can bring about easy change if I can move the conversation to open words. My daughters accuse me of always golfing. I may golf a lot, but I’m not ALWAYS golfing. What is it they are really trying to tell me? Listening for the ALWAYS opens up the possibility for the real conversation.
External vs. Internal Motivation
These are words that reveal my mental and emotional position relative to the situations and consequences of life. Words that reflect an external motivation like should and need to imply we are victims of our circumstances and have little control over our current or future condition. This position of innocence is a seductively alluring, but it sets us on the slippery path to abdicating personal responsibility. At a societal or organizational level it begs oversight and judgment, as external forces are left to dictate not only what we do, but who we are or can be. Over time, conformability settles in with this position and it eventually leads to determinism and …
Ultimately, these words express a lack of choice on our part. By limiting the possibilities and giving up control to external forces, we lose the sense of responsibility for our life. We feel the forces from outside have control and defensively we take comfort in the protective shield of blame. Blame is a major source of productivity loss in organizations. Blame cultures limit our willingness to take risks and accept responsibility, which in turn discourages innovation and creativity out of fear of criticism or prosecution. It is a sign of immaturity in individuals, teams, and leadership. Listen to the words of young children; you will hear this kind of speech because that is their chronological point of reference.
The Awareness and Responsibility Check with Teams
Here’s a little exercise I do with my teams and family that helps increase awareness while encouraging responsibility by maintaining a frame of
reference that is positive and open, internally motivated, and acknowledges living life by choice.
We start by brainstorming words to “check” each other on because they are closed, external or deny choice. If there is a documented Team Operating Agreement we may even add them to that. These could be words like “never, got to, always, can’t, should, have to, must, need to” and my all time favorite, “the problem is…”
Then, team members are challenged to listen for (practice awareness of) use of these words in team interactions. Whenever someone uses one of those words, rather than correcting them or having them pay a fine (a practice I’ve never been able to effectively administer) the observer is to challenge the speaker’s position in a curious and respectful way. This could sound like:
“The problem is I’m always working. I really should work less, but I can’t get any time off.”
Hearing this from a team member, assuming it is not just a moment of venting that is out of the ordinary, I would be compelled to respond with some reality. It may be how the person is feeling, but it is probably far from reality. I may call them out on why it is a problem, or the true numbers of hours worked, or even ask them why they are working so much. But eventually the conversation will turn to the fact that it is really their choice to work as much as they do. And until they can accept that reality, they will lack the awareness and responsibility necessary to contribute optimally to the team.
You get the idea. It’s not an attack on the speaker; mostly it is just clarifying and bringing a little consciousness to the conversation. With some practice, the game becomes self-perpetuating as people look more to the possibilities and begin to take responsibility for conditions and situations. Over time, team members know that others are listening intently (this game will also encourage better listening skills) and people will choose their words more consciously and deliberately. The end result is that not only will overall communication improve (more conscious speaking and listening), but you will develop a culture that is positive, open, internally motivated, and choice-filled.
As teams learn to work together, they often get stuck in the Storming stage. In my next article, I will touch on the impact of developing awareness and responsibility as a prerequisite for getting out of Storming, and how to use the Team Check as a barometer for building high performing teams.