Ep 41: Mind Your Language

Ep 41

In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explain the importance of distinguishing between an assertion and an assumption and the power it holds for making better decisions.  


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Don’t forget to check out Irvine’s You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 

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Irvine (00:03):

Well, welcome everyone to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Nugente Nugent. As always, I am joined by my co-host and collaborator, Bridgette Thuerer. Bridgette, how are you today?

Bridgette (00:26):

Well, Irvine, I’m doing well. Thank you for asking. It’s good to be with you as always. I see you are wearing a very lovely red shirt today, which is quite flattering for you. Thank you,

Irvine (00:37):

Thank

Bridgette (00:37):

You, thank you. And I’m excited about this topic. I remember distinctly when I was first introduced to the notion of language acts, speech acts, which we’re gonna talk a little bit about, and I remember it was like putting on a new pair of glasses. Mm-hmm. I started to see things really differently, and I started to listen differently. So I am really looking forward to diving in, and of course, what I just said might not make any connection or sense to our listeners. So, Irvine, why don’t you tell, why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about what we’re gonna be diving?

Irvine (01:13):

Yeah. Let’s put a little context, a wrapping paper around this. So today’s topic is called Mind Your Language, <laugh>. And, uh, you know, I know, well, you know, on average we speak, I look this up, how many words does the average humans being speak in a day? And I know this will depend on a lot of things, but on average, we speak about 15,000 words a day. That’s a lot. And of course, we use our language in descriptive fashion to describe situations we’re in. But not all language is descriptive with language. We get to create, we get to do things, we take actions, we put in motion different events, and, you know, take for example, the two simple words, yes and no. When we say the word yes, it means we are moving in one, uh, way and certain possibilities, certain actions and results, and away from others where we’ve made a choice there.

(02:06):

And by saying no, just exactly the same thing. And this act of declaring yes or no is really not describing anything, but rather it’s creating possibility or shutting down other possibilities. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that’s really at the core of what we mean by this thing we just mentioned, language acts. And what language acts are the reality that something expressed with a person, uh, by a person that’s dying, which is not just about describing something, but really it’s about an action that is performed as well. Now, please, please, please, if you’ve just joined us, this episode is not about grammar. I am the wrong person to talk about grammar. But really what I wanna get at, and what we’re gonna talk about is, at its core, we can be a little sloppy when it comes to language, and that can lead to frustrations, misunderstandings, communication, breakdowns.

(03:02):

So today’s discussion is how do we avoid that? And how do we really get to the core of the language we’re using, especially in organizations that are highly anxious. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And what we’re really going to examine today is a, a really common language act that we get wrong a lot. And it’s the distinction between an assertion and an assumption. And I promise you, if you learn this distinction, it will lead to better results at home and at work. So, Bridgette, does that resonate? I know you said when you first heard language acts, it, it, it opened your eyes to a new reality. But have you seen problems coming from sloppy use of language?

Bridgette (03:43):

Oh my goodness, absolutely. And I think what was so eye-opening for me is to see that language, as you just said, is not just about describing things, it’s about creating our future. When we begin to speak, we start to create in ways that we’re often unaware of. Now, if our language is sloppy, if our requests are imprecise, if our responses to requests, for example, are imprecise, as you said, breakdowns can, you know, can easily happen. So like, I mean, here’s the most common thing I can think of is when people say, can you take care of this report for me? Can you qc this report for me asap? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what does ASAP mean?

Irvine (04:26):

Absolutely.

Bridgette (04:27):

I mean, to you, ASAP might mean right in that moment, like, drop everything you’re doing and take care of this. But to me, ASAP might mean as long as I get it done, by the end of the day, you’re gonna be fine. Yeah. See, right there, just with that little thing, you know, we can get into trouble, let alone other things. Like, I don’t know, you know, let’s say somebody says, well, can you handle this? And somebody else says, yeah, I think we should be able to take care of that. What does that mean? I think we should be able to take care of that. You can take care of it, or you’re not gonna take care of it. You know, or, or

Irvine (05:02):

Just think about

Bridgette (05:03):

It. Yeah. Or just think about it, <laugh>, even when we ask somebody, what do you think?

Irvine (05:11):

Mm-hmm.

Bridgette (05:12):

Often they will respond in ways where the thinking is not clear. Is it an opinion? Is it a fact? Is it the gospel? You know, what are we really talking about here? So I see this all the time, and I think it’s part of what’s going on in today’s world where we’re having so much trouble understanding one another.

Irvine (05:35):

I agree. I agree. So let’s dive into this a little bit, Bridget, and let’s look at a distinction that at times we don’t often make, which, what can get us into a lot of trouble. And that’s the distinction between an assertion and an assessment. And let’s just define both of those. What do we mean when we say those? And then let’s take the discussion there. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So what’s an assertion? So an assertion is all about the facts, the facts of life and assertions that we make. They’re either true or false. And what’s interesting about an assertion is a third party can verify it. So we can verify this is a true or a false statement. And very rarely are they influenced by their moods or emotions or, uh, our beliefs. So let’s give you some examples. So Irvin is five 10. That is an assertion someone can measure and, and make sure that that’s verified.

(06:35):

10 years ago, it was probably five 11, but today it’s five 10, and in 10 years time it may be five, seven, but as of today it’s five 10 <laugh>. You can go come out of a meeting and say, you know, that meeting was 90 minutes long. And absolutely that can be verified. Uh, it’s, uh, you may disagree about when it actually started, but it’s a number that can be verified, or you look out the wind and you say it’s raining outside. Uh, all of those are, uh, assertion. So then what’s an assessment? So an assessment, therefore is an opinion or a story that we make up. And it’s a highly personal, uh, judgment. And it’s not good or bad, it just is. This is not evaluating things as good or bad. And so then let’s make, take some of those same statements and see the difference between what we mean by an assert an, uh, assertion and an assessment.

(07:31):

So you could say Irvine is tall. Hmm. Well, that is an assessment. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> who says, I’m tall. I may say I’m tall, but for others I may not. Or you could say, that meeting was so long, or you could say, look, it’s aside. And you could say, oh, it’s just really gross outside. In fact, I said this yesterday, I was driving back home and it was raining. And I said, oh, look at it. Look, it’s gross outside. Yeah. And that’s an assessment. So again, it’s, it’s, it’s not true or false, but the problem here is they can never be verified by a third party. And they’re really influenced. You can see how they’re influenced by the mood we’re in, by our beliefs, by the emotions. And, you know, this is just part of our hardwiring. And when you notice how often we do this, you’ll begin to see, oh my God, I just, that’s an assessment I just made. Yeah. You know, you could say like, oh, I, I can trust her with my life <laugh>, or, or tomorrow it’ll be a better day. All of those are assessments. So, Bridget, why do you think this distinction is important, especially in this context of anxious organizations, which we talk a lot about?

Bridgette (08:43):

Yeah. I mean, it’s always important, but especially so when there’s a lot of uncertainty and change or anxiety circulating around, because what we know is there’s an inverse relationship between anxiety, high levels of anxiety and cognition. Mm-hmm. What we’re saying there is when anxiety reaches a very high chronic level, it, it narrows in the brain our opportunity to access all of our brain, right? All of our cerebral cortex. And we don’t think as clearly, we don’t respond as thoughtfully. We don’t take the time to tease things out to listen and so forth. So one could see then that in an anxious, uh, organization or family or team, people are just gonna say what they feel in the moment, and they’re gonna say, with a lot of conviction, <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, you know, I might just say, oh my God, that client is just impossible.

(09:43):

I, I can’t even work with them anymore. And they declare it as if everybody agrees. But somebody’s sitting in that meeting going, I didn’t find that client so bad, I can deal with that client. Right. You know? Yeah. Or somebody else might say, oh my gosh, a recession is absolutely coming. There’s no doubt about it. Course they’ve been saying that for a long time, and we better, you know, hunker down and prepare for the inevitable. And so, again, they’re speaking it as if it is an assertion. We all agree on this. And when people speak, uh, their assessments as if they are facts, one is it can shut down conversations because you can tell there’s not really a lot of room for conversation there. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it can lead us down some paths that aren’t necessarily very helpful because the, maybe the assessment is incorrect Yeah. Or incomplete, or would be perhaps filled out with further conversation. But our anxiety just kind of leads us to declare something as so, uh, for better or for worse. So I don’t know if that resonates with you or That’s what came to my mind.

Irvine (11:02):

Absolutely. Yeah. You know, I’m thinking as well of, um, you know, it comes up a lot in coaching conversations, you know, kind of when you say to, you know, kind of like, well, what issue would you like to talk about today? And it’s, it’s interesting kind of what follows from that. And, and I, I’m, I’m coming back to a, a, a really interesting conversation to have with a client. And, you know, the opening statement was, was about the supervisor. And they said, you know, the problem with her is she just doesn’t care. And I said, well, there is an interesting statement. I said, let’s, let’s, let’s unpack that a little bit. And it was such an interesting conversation about, you know, helping another person be aware of, of, of, of the impact of making that statement. And, you know, what, what was it made you like?

(11:49):

Why do you feel that way? What, what, what made you come to the fact that doesn’t care? And of course, she was able to pick out a few incidences of, well, you know, uh, emails that weren’t responded to, or some work that was turned in that she thought that that should have had some appreciation, or Thank you that didn’t happen. And all of a sudden these grabbing and we, we, we just all of a sudden turned the supervisor into a person who just doesn’t care mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And instead of like, the person like, well, maybe there was two or three incidents that happened that maybe they could have been more caring or more thoughtful. Now it’s like, well, that’s my identity. They don’t care. And it was interesting that I invited her to think about, well, maybe could we think about this differently? What might have happened?

(12:39):

And just even that introduction, that pause, that instead of, of issuing a statement that defined the totality of a person, that now it was, okay, let me break this down. Is this really the whole truth of what I’m speaking? Or what have I rushed into here? Yeah. And I think, you know, you see that a lot in anxious organizations because people feel slighted. They feel that they’re, they’re not being listened to. They feel that at times. And, and, and this is very, very common and very common, and it’s subtle, and yet it is so pervasive as an impact.

Bridgette (13:12):

Absolutely. I mean, just that one example you gave is so powerful because if you conclude that your manager doesn’t care across the board, you’re gonna distance yourself most likely from that manager. And then how is that going to, what, what will be the consequences of that going forward? So language matters a whole lot.

Irvine (13:34):

Absolutely. You know, and you can carry this, this throughout, you know, little statements we make, you know, say someone misses a deadline at work, and then, you know, a manager says to the team, well, they’re just unreliable. And it’s like, oh, interesting. So now the person is unreliable in everything. So it’s interesting how that one statement, you know, instead of you were not able to get the product I needed in on time is different from, you know, making a holistic notion about a person or, or definition of a person. And the other thing, Bridget as well, is I think it, it happens interior as well. You know, how many times do we make our own assessments about ourself? You know, I do it all the time. I’m like, God, <laugh>, I know. I mean, I was going through a toll. I was changing cars, and I forgot to bring the toll electronic pass that’s at the pass.

(14:22):

And I, I said out loud to myself, you’re such an idiot, <laugh>. And it’s like, you know, that’s, and it’s such a to instead of like, oh no, I forgot my pass. Yeah. Instead of, no, I’m an idiot. Now I become an idiot. It defines who I am. So it’s interesting about these assessments that we make and the impact. So knowing that they’re all pervasive, knowing that it’s something we do, Bridget, then the question I think comes up, what can we do about this? What mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what can really help us in this world that we find ourselves, where we really make a lot of assessments every day?

Bridgette (14:52):

Yeah. Well, of course the first step is we have to become an observer of ourselves. We have to notice our language. You know, we have to take a step back and listen to it. That’s always the first step to changing anything. Right? I think that it really helps if we can, when we hear ourselves say, okay, is this an assessment or a fact? And if the answer is it’s an assessment, then say to ourselves, how well grounded is it? Hmm. You know, and how can I make sure that this assessment is based in thoughtful consideration? So what does it mean to ground the assessment? Well, you’ve just gotta ask yourself a few questions, right? Like, I mean, what’s it based on, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I said that so-and-so’s an idiot, or I’m an idiot. You know, what, what am I basing that on? Is there really any solid evidence to support that assessment?

(15:54):

Okay, maybe there is. Well, what are these facts? And make sure that we’re talking about facts again versus just additional assessments. Right. And then you alluded to this Irvin, but a really important question to ask is in what domain does this assessment apply? Mm-hmm. You did that with your client when they just categorically said this, my manager doesn’t care. And you helped them explore Wolf. Is that across the board? Mm-hmm. Maybe they don’t care about this, but they actually really care about that. You know, or so-and-so’s not reliable. Well, in what domain? They’re not reliable with certain things like their time sheets. They stink at getting their time sheets in on time. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and I can show you the facts for that. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but there are other places where they’re actually quite reliable. And so taking the time to ground our assessment provides more rigor for our thinking, and it invites other people to do the same. And then we’re creating a different future, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I don’t know, what do you think of that, Irvine?

Irvine (17:04):

Yeah, no, I totally agree. I don’t know about you, but where I see this Bridget as well is sometimes in the process of giving feedback or professional development, and we can make these sweeping. We see people making treatments, statements about a person, and it’s sloppy because it really doesn’t get to the heart of what area needs to be developed. You know, if there’s a problem, what is the problem? Because, you know, if well, they’re tardy, well, what does it mean they’re tardy? That doesn’t really help, you know, a discussion. Is there an issue here? Is there not, is there a problem or why they may be turning up late? Is it every day? Is it just certain days? You know, I remember a few years ago, I had a really wonderful curious manager who was dealing with, uh, the tardiness and was getting very frustrated. And I just said, I said, just be curious about, I said, every day, I mean, have you what? I said, well, I don’t know, it’s just they’re t tardy. And then they came back about two months later and they said, you know what I said about the, the issue about the tardiness? And I said, yeah. And he said, well, I said, I, I looked in a little more and it was Justin Wednesday’s <laugh>.

(18:16):

And I said, oh. And I said, well, well, what, what, what insight did you get? I said, well, I explored that a little more. And we, there was a problem with childcare. So there was a discussion. And then it kind of led to an even deeper discussion in the company about helping people. So it was so interesting how their, you know, an assessment had just generalized behavior. And then when, when that was grounded, it kind of was eyeopening and it helped them just explore what was happening and a little more precise mm-hmm.

Bridgette (18:43):

<affirmative> and actually solved the real problem, you know? Yeah. That’s absolutely, that’s so, so important. You mentioned curiosity, and that would be essential to grounding our assessments. We have to be curious, right? Mm-hmm. And we ask, be willing to challenge our assessments and ask some questions about them. I’m just wondering if there’s anything else. So we’ve talked about a number of things that can help us ground our assessments. Anything else come to mind? Irvin,

Irvine (19:10):

We’ve kind of gone with the, what evidence backs this up. There’s the opposite way of thinking, which I also think is a great curious question and can be really interesting, which is what evidence can you find that it’s actually incorrect? Is there any evidence out there that you’re thinking actually is wrong? And, you know, so often, you know, our assessments are coupled with an emotion, you know, and a conviction. And we can feel that we, we, we emotionally need this assessment to be correct, because it says something about who we are. This is something we’ve expressed. And if I say this is wrong, then, then I’ve got it wrong and I’m saying something about myself. So, so it’s, it’s disentangling some of this, you know, emotional certainty that we have with an assessment and be able to say, okay, what evidence have I out there mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And is there any evidence that actually is contradictory to the, my way of thinking? And I think that’s, that’s really, really important because it can truly raise up some new information for us. And if we’re open to it, really say, okay, you know what? I actually got that wrong and in light of this, I need to change my thinking.

Bridgette (20:22):

Hmm. I don’t know. I have not seen people do that very often. No. Including myself, <laugh>,

Irvine (20:30):

But Dito, I think, if I’m honest. Yes. Uh,

Bridgette (20:34):

Particularly when you’re anxious. ’cause when you’re anxious, you get tunnel vision. Yeah. And, and you’re, you’re literally, your vision narrows. Yeah. And so it, it really takes something kind of extraordinary to hit that pause button and say, wait a second. We feel so very certain about this. And yet what evidence might there be to challenge our certainty? I love that Irvine. I, I love it. Yeah. It’s very, very difficult to do.

Irvine (21:03):

Absolutely.

Bridgette (21:04):

And I think, of course, you know, we’re connecting this back to anxious organizations. And so when, when anxiety is high, our brains are looking for closure and quick fixes. So to say something like that, the question is like, gets in the way of, you know, of that. Absolutely. If we’re going to operate as a step down transformer, which we talked about in the last episode, and we’ve talked about numerous times, that’s really about calming things by helping people focus on the facts Hmm. And step back from the emotional pressures of the day and ask a few curious questions. Right? Yeah. So they kind of go hand in hand, don’t they, being a step down transformer and this notion of making sure we’re grounding our assessments and not just throwing all of our opinions around like their fact.

Irvine (21:59):

Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. It have the wisdom to kind of know, notice when that’s happening as well.

Bridgette (22:05):

Yeah, for sure. And you know, as you were saying with feedback, we see it, I see it when, you know, a leader is approached by an employee and that employee says, so and so is a real problem, you gotta do something about that. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And when that leader doesn’t challenge that person to say, well, what are you basing that on? What is that grounded in? What are the facts here that we can actually put on the table and look at, uh, they spread that anxiety. Okay. So how else are you seeing this show up in organizations urban?

Irvine (22:41):

Yeah. I wanna take us back just to that example that you used, but I think it’s a great example. ’cause I do see it all the time. And that is, you know, like such a simple thing as a leader saying to the team, you know, this project’s very important and we need it done fast or asap as you said. You know, <laugh>, I actually was in a discussion with someone the other day, and I, we were talking about our emotional triggers and I was asking him, you know, what are some of your emotional triggers? And he said, oh, so the thing that just drag just, it, it drives me crazy. I said, what is it? He said, it’s urgency mismatch, <laugh>. I said, ah, what’s, what’s urgency? Mismatch? I said, yeah, well, that’s where like, I think, you know, something’s urgent, and I think they think that something’s urgent, but their definition of urgent very different from my definition of urgency.

(23:23):

And I was like, whoa, there it is. You know, the, you know, this lack, this sloppiness and this lack of clarity leads to, to these communication breakdowns, you know, and, you know, and it just takes a little, little fix, you know, things like, you know, this project is a priority and we need it done by 7:00 PM tomorrow. Now even then it’s like, what does done mean? You know, because you get into like, as as even as that, as clear as we could be. But it, it is this invitation for us just to be aware of our statements and how those statements at times are not grounded. And because of their lack of grounded groundedness, we, we get in trouble.

Bridgette (24:05):

Indeed. We do.

Irvine (24:07):

Yeah. We always try and leave listeners with a practical exercise. So Bridgette, any suggestions here on how we may help people ground, uh, some of their assessments?

Bridgette (24:19):

Yeah, so I think it begins with something I said earlier. We’re gonna practice this. We have to become a better observer of language and of the distinction that, you know, you’ve talked about Irvin here, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that means can we listen to the language that we’re using first and foremost, and that others are using, and be curious and be, wait, is that an assessment or an assertion? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And we can even ask the person, right? Like, is this an interpretation or is this a fact? Or how do you know? But it always begins with being a more curious observer of the language that we’re using and how it is shaping our reality, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that’s step number one. I think another great step is to reflect on our relationships, the important stakeholders, the important people in our lives, you know, our spouses, our children, our friends, our boss, our clients.

(25:18):

And think about what are some recent assessments we’ve made about them. Maybe even go so far as to write it down. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, some of them are positive, no doubt. Some of them might not be <laugh>, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And to notice, we’re always, always making assessments constantly. And unless we are aware of them and take a real look at them, we live them as facts, not as opinions. And then finally, you know, ask yourself, okay, is this a grounded assessment? And what evidence do I have to support this assessment? That’s key. If we’re really brave, we might do what you said and say what evidence contradicts <laugh> this assessment? And then lastly, maybe that will lead you to see that there are some assessments that you might need to drop, or you might need to revise or at least seek some new information. Right? And that willingness to be open is so key, man, imagine Irvine, if every single person did this, wouldn’t we be in different conversations, uh, as a community and as a country?

Irvine (26:29):

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Oh, this, the, this subtle distinction. Yeah. Wow. Those, those questions are really, really thought provoking. And I think, you know, if we really did that exercise, I think we would be astonished by how many assessments we make on a daily basis. And just that simple, you know, wow. Have I grounded that or not? So thank you. This was a, a really fascinating, um, conversation. It’s kind of started with words in my mother, in my head, which were, you know, mind your language there, boy, <laugh>. And, and really the important stuff, you know, the language we use is really critical at work and at home, and especially in anxious organizations and systems. And just this subtle, this subtle ability to, is that, you know, an assertion or is it an assessment can really ground us and help us, prevent us really from breakdowns in communication perceptions of others, and, and truly help us to arrive at a much more calm and curious and collected presence, I think with each other, which, uh, ultimately is, is what we’re trying to achieve.

Bridgette (27:42):

It’s what we all want. Yeah. We sometimes just don’t know how to get there. Thank you Irving, for this great conversation. Really appreciate it.

Irvine (27:49):

Likewise. Thanks Bridgette. Appreciate it.

Bridgette (27:52):

Bye folks.

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