“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.”
Are you a leader? If you are, it is time to look at how you and those around you use language, because language is one of your fundamental tools. Understanding how the spoken word affects and creates our world will play a role in your success. What is language, and how do we as humans and leaders use it to create our worlds and our future? Some deep stuff but let’s have fun with it.
We are (almost) always in language – Ours is a world of words. Most of our daily life is transactional – we are communicating with others, and with ourselves, using language. Unless we are alone experiencing a magnificent sunset, meditating, in Flow, or some other transcendent experience – we are thinking in language or speaking. We are defining, sorting and describing; a cat is a cat because we call it a cat in language, and if we come upon an unfamiliar furry animal with whiskers whose name we don’t know, we will use language to describe it.
When you use language you are actually taking action – The act of using language is to take action. Think about the simple act of saying, “I will!” versus saying “I’ll try.” When you say, “I will!” you are creating a different commitment and expectations. If you ask friends to come over to your house for a BBQ on Saturday, and one friend says, “I will be there!” and the other says, “I’ll try to be there,” – which friend do you think will be at your party? Commitment and action are created in the words chosen. This is why the correct answer when reciting wedding vows is a solemn, “I do.” not “I’ll give it a try!”
Language does not just describe, it creates – Language, however, does more than describe things, it creates our world and our future. The simple act of calling a friend for lunch is opening up a new future that could not exist prior to the request. This happens with our past, our present, and our futures. We are always creating them in language. When you think of a past event, it is how you shape it in language that re-creates it today. If your team lost the big game you have a different past, and a different storyline, than a fan whose team won. Regardless of what image you create, you have created it in language. As a leader how you use language creates what is possible for those around you.
We create meaning through language – Do you care about 16th century art? If you do then you will, through language, have conversations about it. If you do not, then likely you will not have conversations about it. Regardless of where your passions are, when you care about something and discuss it, you give it meaning, As a leader, what you choose to talk about, what you determine has meaning, is where your organization is going to focus. If you put emphasis on safety that is the meaning you are creating for others. If you regard safety as a waste of time, and don’t talk about it, then that is the meaning you are creating.
Reality does not match our interpretations – Experiments have shown that we all experience events differently, it is our explanation of what has happened that gives it meaning for us. We all re-create the event using language. My assessment of how a meeting went will likely be different from yours. This happens all the time. We observed what we observed, not necessarily what happened. The challenge is that our explanations and interpretations are influenced by our state of mind and our history, and that affects what meaning we will create in language about the event.
Language helps us create context – Let’s all stand together and observe a painting. What does it mean? Well, from the perspective of the artist it may mean one or multiple things. To the art critic is means other things. To you, it may be meaningless paint on canvas, or it may give you a powerfully inspiring experience. But the language used by the artist or the critic, or the person standing next to you, can give you useful context. If you learned that our painting was painted by a 6-year-old prodigy then you might have a different perspective, and that was created in language.
Language creates your relationships – The word ‘boss’ carries many connotations; from childhood as in, “Don’t boss me around,” to Best Boss Ever, to the absolute worst. But for each of us the word has a meaning and creates the relationship. You likely have a different relationship with your boss than you have with your sister, or your neighbor, or best friend. The moment we have a relationship, we create it through language. Someone is a stranger, then an acquaintance, then a friend, then a close friend, and possibly your best friend. Each of those relationships has different meanings and those meanings determine what conversations and actions are available in that relationship. Other than perhaps your partner, and family members, most of our relationships are only created in language and our communication is not physical in nature.
Language creates your public identity – If your boss says in a meeting, “You are always late!” he just helped created your public identity. John is smart! John is dumb! Both statements affect the public identity of John. Want to see it in action, just look at the majority of political branding and advertising. Each side picks one or two choice negative labels they hope to stick on the other side’s candidate in order to do damage. Public identity is created in language. Your public identity influences the conversations that are open to you or closed to you.
How does all of this apply to you as a leader? How you use language and how you understand the use of language can shift how you communicate and interpret behavior and events day to day. It is a powerful skill to be able to better interpret the behavior and motivations of your employees or team members through their use of language. Language is our most fundamental human tool. Our ability to understand it and use it well will determine what future we create. And is that not the goal of a leader, to create the future?