Language and the Devil’s Advocate

Happy and Sad“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?

7 Responses to Language and the Devil’s Advocate

  1. Yesterday on a call with Peter Block he talked about the phrase, “letting go”. He feels it has been overused and has lost its meaning. HIs alternate language is,”connecting in a new way”.

    For example. Instead of saying, ‘leaders need to let go of some control.’
    say instead,
    ‘leaders need to find a new to connect with their employees’

  2. Pearl –
    Yes yes yes – AND I’m thinking we “need to” “let go” (oh my 2 phrases in one!) of the words “need to” – especially when we’re talking prescriptively about what others “need to do.”

    Which leads me to consider whether maybe one characteristic of language that creates possibility is that it be inviting rather than prescriptive? (Thinking out loud here…)

  3. A recent example in my locale is the word “sustainability.” To some, it represents a UN plot to take over the world; to many it is about harmony with our natural environment; still others see it as making things last longer (as in construction). It is quite easy for a person to step unintentionally into a quagmire with one seemingly simple statement. #been there, done that

  4. Three cups of coffee in! Here’s my thinking out loud . .

    I’m somewhat familiar with the concepts behind nonviolent communication. I’m sure his DVDs were made for watching rather than dusting. I’m more familiar with semantic precisioning, and the use of ‘could of’, ‘should of’, ‘must be’, ‘need to’, etc.

    Removing negatives, prescriptives and demands makes communication effective, and provides a mutually beneficial two-way stream of concept and dialogue. It creates the possibility of co-creating.

    Even when we’re passionate about something, we can come across as wanting to control instead of participate. Chances are we’re speaking sincerely through natural conversation; however, we’re unfamiliar with how the other person is processing our words, or how the entire room full of different people are processing.

    I pulled this harmless quote from your post to illustrate what I’m thinking.

    :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.:

    Turns into: Which means that we can tell ourselves a different story – a more effective story- by our using different language.

    When I read “there is no reason”, I visualize a wagging finger from my grade school days. I’m going to tune out the rest of the sentence because I’m having ruler-knuckle flashbacks. =)

    Sometimes I’ll ‘think out loud’ on paper, and then go back and tidy it up by making the negatives more inviting than threatening.

    I’ve also seen this type of precision go too far. Sometimes it’s easier to yell, “Stop!” rather than, “You may want to put your foot on the brake right now because there is a . . .”

    A right place and a right time for everything.

  5. Thanks Hildy for a welcome reminder about the power of words and for a timely push that left me realizing we must remain vigilant against language traps…I’m seeing them daily in my work. Many of us are struggling to find a voice that speaks our own ideas, expresses our aspirations, articulates our vision. But we are up against formidable barriers – acronyms of convenience that repeatedly appear in our conversations but detract from their meaning; catchphrases and monikers that emanate from funders and policymakers only to become the script or reference-of-the-month that gets repeated and repeated; speaking in sound bites through the media as a means of speaking to our communities. Before we even know we’re doing it, we’re using a language that isn’t ours and speaking words that are not in fact supportive of our intended message. Pressing the pause button, as I did after reading your post and the comments it generated, helped me to reclaim my intention and see the opportunities for speaking rather than echoing, for engaging in conversation rather than endorsing the consensus of convenience. This is a challenge we all face, and it’s surprising how easily our words can be altered without us realizing it’s happening (and with our participation!). You’re right about the cultural component in this, and as I continue to collect cultural competencies in my work I’m going to be more mindful of the lexicon that supports my aspirations. If the radio station you’re hearing isn’t playing tunes you like…