“I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment.”
The conversation stopped. The room tensed up. The person to whom that line was delivered immediately got defensive, trying to maintain polite composure in a room full of people.
That devil’s advocate was my friend Joe, and after everyone had gone back to niceties, Joe told me the response had surprised him. “I just wanted to explore another possibility,” he told me. He never realized that an expression that seemed simply idiomatic to him – a segue of thought – had thwarted him before he even began.
Language is a reflection of our culture, a culture handed down over the many millenia of humans being humans. We think of culture as current, but I often imagine going back hundreds of thousands of years and seeing kernels of those behaviors even in Neanderthals. While some of our behaviors are indeed biologically induced, a great deal of what we take for granted as “just the way things are” is nothing but a story we tell ourselves.
And from that story comes our language.
Which means that we can tell ourselves a different story – a more effective story. And that there is no reason that story can’t start by our using different language.
Imagine the difference if Joe had said precisely what he told me: “I want to explore another possibility.” Or, “I’m not seeing what you’re seeing. Can I share what I’m seeing, so we can explore this together?”
Which leads me to wonder…
What is happening with language that moves us along together vs. tearing us apart? What assumptions undergird language that creates win-win – language that assumes that just because I am obviously brilliant, the person to whom I am speaking might ALSO be brilliant?
“When our communication supports compassionate giving and receiving, happiness replaces violence and grieving.” Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for NonViolent Communication
So then what does such language look like? What are its characteristics?
And is it possible that in settings that create tension and turf and mistrust, that changing our language might change – well – everything?