When Words Don’t Matter (Part 4), or Jingle Bells

A few months ago I was in a group training class with what I can only call an ornery old-school Gestalt therapist as the facilitator. Nothing got by this guy. Nothing.

He started off with a group check-in. When I said, “I’m excited about the course this weekend,” he scoffed. “Your words say you’re excited,” he said, “but nothing else does. The words are Jingle Bells, but the tune is The Old Rugged Cross.”

It was true. My words said I was excited, but my body was slumped in my chair. My eyes were half-closed. I was speaking in a mumble and so quietly I was almost inaudible. There was a complete disconnect between my words and everything else I was conveying. I might have believed what I was telling myself – “I’m excited!” – but no one else did.

Such an obvious disconnect between what someone is saying and what someone is feeling is a rich place of exploration for coaches (and for therapists). When one of my coaching clients starts talking about a goal they “should” get around to, and starts making half-hearted plans, then it’s the perfect time for me to say, “I hear you saying you want to do this, but I don’t hear any desire, drive, or excitement in your voice. Is this a goal that truly resonates with you?”

I invite you to check in this week on the messages you’re conveying in your body language, your tone of voice, your facial expressions. Do those messages match up with your words? If not, what’s up?

Words Matter (part 3): What Are Your Tendencies?

I posted last year about the Tyranny of Self-Knowledge: the more we know about ourselves, the less room we leave for possibilities and discovery. But who wants to let go of all this self-knowledge we’ve built up?

How can I hold and appreciate my self-knowledge, and leave room for discovery and growth? Here’s a switch I’m playing with: rather than describing myself using “I am…” or “I always…”, I’m starting to use the words “tend” and “tendency”.

For example, instead of saying “I take on too much” (as if it is a fixed fact), I say, “I tend to take on too much.” Now that I’ve labelled it as a tendency, I also realize that it’s something I can choose not to do. It doesn’t have to be my identity to take on too much. It’s just something I tend to do, and I could decide to tend to do something else.

Another example: “I get overwhelmed.” If I change that to “I tend to get overwhelmed”, then I can now work with a spectrum – a spectrum of tending towards overwhelm or away from overwhelm. No longer is it “overwhelmed” or “not overwhelmed” – it’s a tendency I can lean towards or away from.

I invite you to pick something you *know* about yourself, and to restate it this week as a tendency. What changes for you?

Hat-tip to one of the many amazing Co-Active Coaching leaders who emphasized this language switch.
I can’t help it. I have near-majors in linguistics and psychology. You can see previous Words Matter posts here and here.


Words Matter – Consciously Chosen Words

Over a few years of therapist training and coach training, I became acutely conscious of how I used pronouns: I, you, we, they, it.

I began to believe that my pronoun choice was a powerful way for me to discover my unconscious assumptions, and to communicate more clearly.

Here’s an example to walk you through what I mean:

First variation: “When I disagree with someone, I feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

When I choose to express this sentence in the first person (“I”), I am taking ownership of my actions (disagreeing) and my reactions (feeling tense, anxious, and uncomfortable).

Second variation (with the same intent as the first): “When you disagree with someone, you feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

(Imagine this in a buddy-buddy tone, as in, “You know when you disagree with someone, and you feel tense and anxious and uncomfortable?”)

I frequently hear people speak in the second person when they actually are describing their own experience. I imagine they mean, “When a person disagrees with someone, the person feels tense, anxious, and uncomfortable”, but instead they say it in the second person: “When you disagree with someone, you feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

The speaker’s actual meaning, I imagine, is not their belief about what “a person” does, but the truth for themselves. In the above example, the speaker means that when she disagrees with someone, she feels tense, anxious, and uncomfortable. But instead, she said “you”, when a quick poll would show that for many “you”s, reality is different – other people may get excited and energized by disagreement, may feel intrigued and curious, may feel ready to fight… a myriad of reactions.

When I describe my feelings in the second person (“you”), not only am I distancing myself from my own feelings and refusing to own them, but I am also assuming that what is true for me is true for others. I’ve been trying for a long time to be more aware of how I speak about my feelings. To not say, “You know when you get tired and you feel overwhelmed?” and instead say, “When I get tired, I feel overwhelmed.” To not say, “It hurts”, or “It makes me sad”, but to say, “I hurt”, and “I feel sad.”

These small changes in language are making me more aware of what I believe and feel, more aware of what I assume without questioning, and bringing me into more direct relationship with what I am experiencing.

This week, I invite you to pay attention to what pronouns you use:

Do you use “you” when you mean “I”?

Do you use “we” when you mean “I”? (Common in groups, e.g. “I think I’m speaking for all of us when I say that we believe…”)

Do you use “it” when you mean “I”? (e.g. “It hurts,” instead of, “I’m hurt”.)

What’s the impact on you if you consciously choose “I”?


If you’d like to read more on language, I recommend:

-Pretty much everything from The Center for Nonviolent Communication, and particularly the book Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life (I found it at my local library, and eventually bought my own copy)

-On “I-statements”: here and here and here

Gestalt Processes and Language