Gaining Awareness of our Words

In recent posts, I’ve mentioned the importance of gaining awareness to improve our collaborative performance. In fact, awareness is Principle #1 in making Full Contact with our colleagues. When seeking to gain new awareness, we can look at what we’re doing with our words, our bodies and our attention. Let’s look at our words…

We commonly believe that the primary purpose of words is to convey meaning, which then leads to action. If leaders say certain things, others understand those words and then act in certain ways.

But wait a minute—if words lead others to act, then those words must be action in their own right. And they are. It took an Oxford professor (John Austin) in the 1950s to show us what’s been hiding in plain sight all along: that when we speak, we are acting. In fact, whenever we’re speaking, we’re taking one of five very specific actions (speech acts):

• Asserting facts
• Declaring our opinions, desires or intentions
• Making requests
• Making offers
• Or entering into promises
Look around you for a moment and consider this: Everything you see around you in the man-made world is a product of this handful of speech acts. And everything you’ve accomplished in your career is likewise the result of these same five speech acts, even though you may not have realized it until now.

When I first learned about these five speech acts (assertions, declarations, requests, offers and promises), I was blown away by how central—yet invisible—they are to most of us. I was also struck by what a difference it made with clients when they became aware of how these speech acts function and how to use—and recognize them—more effectively.

For instance, it’s shockingly common for leaders—even at the highest levels—to confuse assertions with declarations (and for us listeners not to realize it). Although this distinction is pretty clear to lawyers and scientists (whose jobs depend upon discerning hearsay, conjecture or opinions from facts or replicable data), the line dividing subjective opinion and true fact is very often murky.

Why does this matter? Because actions have consequences. Including our speech actions. In 30+ years of practice, there hasn’t been one organizational breakdown that I’ve been asked to help fix that hasn’t resulted in part (or entirely) from confusion about words and the actions they represent. And the first step to resolving these breakdowns and transforming collaborative performance is to gain awareness of how speech acts work and how to leverage them for good.

I’ve not found any other book that clearly lays out this critical role that words—and their actions—play in our work and personal lives. This is one reason I wrote Full Contact Performance (releasing in late August).

And even more interesting is that our words don’t live in a vacuum. They are intricately bound with our bodies, our attention and even our emotions. We’ll cover some of this in later posts.

June 6, 2023 by Grayson James


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