Sunday, May 08, 2005

Common Language

The easiest way for a large group to avoid taking a difficult decision is for it to use language that people can interpret at will. Imprecise language, euphemism, cliché, and ‘flexible’ interpretation lead to the illusion of consensus – or acquiescence – whose battle cry is the ubiquitous and exasperated “Whatever”.

I’ve just come from an event in which the lack of common language nearly deprived the participants of understanding what they were agreeing on and why such agreement might really matter. It’s easy to agree that, for example, “all account reconciliation activities will from now on be managed by a shared service center” if we haven’t defined the precise scope of ‘reconciliation activities’ and if we haven’t agreed what a ‘shared service center’ is and isn’t, who runs it, how will they be accountable, etc. Giving the participants the tools to develop their own definitions of these terms and the space to work out and document the precise meaning of each element of their models proved to be the key to success of this event. The basis of our work is modeling, and a model isn’t complete until its elements have been accurately labeled. In this event, the principal outcome – a detailed operating model – was accompanied by a highly-detailed glossary and a set of precise criteria for defining new elements that might enter the model in the future.

(We sometimes prepare a glossary as an input to our events or else use a Terms of Art module early on. Perhaps we should think of a precise and signed-off glossary as an output of our events.

What languages do we have at our disposal?

We have a modeling language that helps participants construct alternative futures and test them. The modeling language gives participants the courage to be precise and avoid compromise. Interestingly, when we teach our modeling language, we start from the most basic elements as if we were teaching German or Swahili: We begin with lines, dots, shapes, and build a modeling grammar and vocabulary that participants can use to paint remarkably rich pictures.

We have a pattern language which helps us shape and model collaborative behaviors. Very little of our pattern language is codified, but that doesn’t make it any less precise. I find that the most remarkable consequence of our pattern language is the speed with which our teams, frequently made up of people who have never worked together before, can know the best way to behave in novel circumstances.

We also use a musical language in our events and too often under-rate the precision and power with which music can transform a difficult-to-enunciate emotion into a shared and remembered experience. The words of the songs we play can make a useful comment on the work we are doing, but much more important is the music itself both for its ability to harmonize our energy and for its remarkable power in touching parts of our psyche that words never reach.

Perhaps metaphor provides us with the most powerful language of all. I frequently tell stories as a facilitation technique. I choose my stories carefully (though I almost never plan them in advance) and having told them, I mine them for the rest of the event as a source of metaphorical language. I think that our ‘Metaphors’ module is one of our most powerful, and I always introduce two or three new metaphors each time I use that module. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this module is the way it enables our participants to mine their new metaphors for new language with which to see their problems in new ways. (Although I always choose metaphors for this module with great care, I suspect that similar results could be achieved with randomly-chosen metaphors.)

The flip side of metaphor is allegory, and we need both. Metaphor is useful when we need to open up a topic, when we need to see a problem from multiple and un-expected points-of-view. Allegory, on the other hand, is useful when we need to develop the sort of precision about which I wrote above.

What is the difference between metaphor and allegory? Here is T.S. Eliot comparing allegory in Dante to metaphor in Shakespeare:

“It is the allegory which makes it possible for the reader who is not even an Italian scholar to enjoy Dante….Dante’s attempt is to make us see what he saw. He therefore employs very simple language, and very few metaphors, for allegory and metaphor do not get on well together…. There is a well-known comparison or simile in the great XVth canto of Inferno…. He is speaking of the crowd in Hell who peered at him and his guide under a dim light:
…and sharpened their vision (knitted their brows) at us, like an old tailor peering at the eye of his needle.
“The purpose of this simile is solely to make us see more definitely the scene which Dante has put before us….
she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.

“The image of Shakespeare’s is much more complicated….’catch in her toil’ is a metaphor. But whereas the simile of Dante is to make you see more clearly how the people looked, and is explanatory, the figure of Shakespeare is expansive rather than intensive; its purpose is to add to what you see….”

I facilitate events in both English and Italian and the language I use has an enormous impact on how I facilitate. As it is my mother tongue, I can be much more precise in English than I can in Italian. I can help participants by providing them with more precise language which they can accept or reject, thereby adding precision. In Italian, I often ask participants to re-phrase their comments until they reach a level of clarity that I am comfortable with. I explain my uncertain interpretation of their comments and ask them to help me understand better what they are trying to say. In English, I am the language’s master; in Italian I am its slave.

Each language also presents intrinsic challenges. For example, English-speakers are prone to irony, which is the enemy of precise language and honest discourse. Italian, on the other hand, presents significant differences in its spoken and written forms, which renders documentation unreliable. The greater use of gesture in Italian has a similar effect. Also, the greater use of the passive voice renders Italian somewhat less suited to clarity in the writing of assignments.

My ability to demonstrate that I precisely understand what participants are trying to communicate – that I am genuinely listening to them – is a proxy for their desperate need to be listened to by one another. Precision in language is one of two prerequisites for helping clients know they are being listened to. The other is actually listening. And oh how much easier it is to listen with care and attention when they speak with care and attention! A large part of our job is helping them to do so.

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