Language Norms

The following is a brief list of language norms which serve as a guide for our work in facilitation and mediation.  They can also serve as a useful tool for communities we work with.

1. Welcome Undiscussables

Unproductive norms: Let’s not talk about that issue; it’s not that serious; let’s put that off until a later date

An organization that is committed to its mission will welcome all topics that can potentially impact goals, relationships, and outcomes.  This means that all views -even uncomfortable ones- need to be placed on the table.  (Senge, et al, 1994; Strauss, 2002; Heifitz, Grashow, Linsky, 2009).

2. Offer the Most Persuasive Argument

Unproductive norms:
 Justifying, rationalizing, defending, ignoring  proposed alternatives  to existing procedures or processes, refusal to offer reasoning, not acknowledging the reasoning of opposing viewpoints

The best decisions are based on the most persuasive argument -not on formal authority.  Reasoning behind ideas and decisions should be provided in all circumstances to ensure mutual understanding and peaceable solutions.  Arguments should be based on the mission of the organization, ethical considerations, physical/mental health of clients partners, and stakeholders, relevant laws, goals and outcomes.  All other considerations should be secondary (Carlson, 1996)

3. Avoid Pejorative Labeling

Unproductive norms: negative, divisive, too angry, harsh tone, anti-administration, anti-management, troublemaker, rabblerouser, radical, difficult, self-righteous, opinionated

Stigmatizing people with labels such as negative and difficult, is counterproductive.  If an organizational issue continues to go unresolved, those who bring the issues to light might grow frustrated and the organization will suffer.  Adding  pejorative labeling to the situation effectively shames people into silence, which can further undermine the community’s goals.

It should be noted that the dark side of an organization often surfaces with the tactic of controlling conversations and silencing questions.  Pejorative labeling is the most common strategy, and we can promote its demise by naming it out in the open (Strauss, 2002; Blase & Blase, 2003).

4. State Intentions

Unproductive norm: Trust good intentions

It is more productive to state our intentions directly in all circumstances than to expect others to trust our intentions.  It is always helpful to reduce the potential for anxiety and mistrust among partners, clients, subordinates, colleagues and management.  Leaving others to guess what we are up to is bound to lead to unnecessary conflicts, because we leave open the possibility of incorrect assumptions about our intentions.   (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, Smith, 1994; Kegan, Lahey, 2001).

5. Balance Inquiry and Advocacy

Unproductive norms
: immediate shutdown when opposing viewpoints are expressed; not asking a colleague to explain his/her reasoning during discussion; controlling conversational space to advance one’s point of view; refusing to offer one’s thinking or reasoning; relentless interrogating instead of genuinely inquiring

Active listening is a challenging task in any organization or community.  We can set a reasonable standard for harmonious discussions  by balancing our need to advocate our own positions with the responsibility to ask questions about the positions of others.  Of course, demonstrating curiosity and genuine interest in another’s views on a subject is not the same as relentlessly interrogating to find fault or sitting in stony silence to express disapproval (Senge, et al, 1994; Elgin, 2000; Kegan, Lahey, 2001; Strauss, 2002).

 Summary on Language Norms

The key to creating a positive language environment is to talk to one another in a way that is  intentional and unobstructive.   This would be a departure from the “language of complaint” that is common in communities towards a “language of commitment.”  A community that speaks the language of commitment is one in which there are no secrets or linguistic tricks.  It is one in which strategies for controlling the conversational space are set aside for those that engender mutual trust and a sense of partnership.

In such a space, all participants will happily take up the responsibility to assert their competence in good faith, rather than shrink away for fear of being attacked or labeled.   However, it should be noted that obstructive language patterns are common in organizational life and often arise during discussions, if inadvertently.

These language norms can serve as a guide in navigating these obstacles and offer a protective container for the conversational space.


A Positive Language Environment

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Carlson, R V. (1996). Reframing & reform: perspectives on organization, leadership, and  school change.  White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers, USA.

Cohen, D. 2005).  The Heart of Change Field Guide: Tools and Tactics for Leading Change in Your Organization.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press

Elgin, S. H. (1993, 2nd ed). The gentle art of verbal self-defense.  New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Elgin, S.H. (2000). The gentle art of verbal self-defense at work. New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press

Heifetz, R. A. Grashow, A., Linsky, M. (2009).  The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics forChanging Your Organization and the World  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press

Kegan, R., Lahey, L. L. (2001).  How the way we talk can change the way we work.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Leymann, H. (1990).  “Mobbing and Psychological Terror at Workplaces,”  pp. 119-126. New York, NY:Springer Publishing Company, LLC, Reprinted,  13 February 2009.

Senge, P. M., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R. B., Smith, B. J., (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization.  New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc..

Simon, G. K. (2010).  In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people.  Little Rock, AK: Parkhurst Brothers Publishers Inc.

Strauss, D. (2002).  How to make collaboration work: Powerful ways to build consensus, solve problems, and make decisions.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.