We have heard this before — we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. And we are what we say.
The speech act theory, as introduced by Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin (How to Do Things With Words, 1962) and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle, considers language as generative and creative (i.e a type of action) rather than merely descriptive (i.e a medium to convey and express). Because language is not isolated from emotions/moods, and emotions are predispositions for actions.
Building on the work by Austin, Searle and Fernando Flores, Julio Olalla (also my coach guru!) offered that every conversation that we have involves one or more of the speech acts of Assertions, Assessments, Declarations, Requests, Offers and Promises. Gaining competence in these 6 speech acts gives us the power of distinctions in language that gets us the results we want in our lives.
Assertions versus Assessments: I had an eye condition called ‘divergent strabismus’ at birth till 30 years old (fact/assertion) versus I looked weird and unattractive (judgement/assessment). The former is a verified statement by a medical professional and any other doctors would come to the same assertion. So assertions are descriptive, factual and are either true or false — and about the observed (in this case, the eyes). On the other hand, the assessment of ‘weird’ and ‘unattractive’ is not about my eyes but about me (the observer). They were based on taunts that I got as a child, amongst others like ‘retarded’. Assessments have a direct impact on how we feel, how we interpret, how we interact with others and therefore our future actions. They are also strongly influenced by moods and emotions. Yet as highly personal judgments, assessments are never true or false — only grounded or ungrounded. There is, therefore, always room for another assessment — that is, other possibilities of interpretation based on other ‘standards’. However, I did not know to make that distinction as I saw the assessment as a fact, as permanent — and was deeply insecure and hence miserable about my appearance, especially during my teenage years.
Similarly, a client of mine held an assessment that a teacher made of him (“you are rubbish”) when he was merely 9 years old, as an assertion. Believing it to be a fact, he lived out his life from that place since and has suffered much including battling depression and suicidal tendencies along the way. His breakthrough came about upon making this distinction, and is now working on reframing that experience and a new way of seeing himself.
Distinguishing between assessments and assertions, I’ve also learned who to give permission to assess me which then allows me to be more conscious in my interpretation and response to that assessment made. I have never been more at ease with myself.
An invitation to explore:
- Can you name an example of an assessment and/or assertion you’ve just made of someone or a situation? What is different now that you understand the distinction between the 2?
- Write a paragraph to describe yourself. Then review this and ask yourself which are facts (assertions) and which are assessments. With each assessment, ask how you came up with it — can you support it with any assertions to ground your assessment? If you choose to see yourself in another way for each assessment (since assessment is not factual, there are other possibilities), how would you feel about yourself? What new actions would you take with this assessment?
Declarations: “Whether you say you can, or say you can’t — either way, you are right!” — is an excellent way to introduce the immense generative nature of this speech act of declarations. Feeling better about myself did not happen immediately with the corrective surgery at 30. It was when I declared myself as beautiful and enough years later that I ‘created’ a new way of showing up in the world — I spoke myself into this beautiful existence! Like me, my client regularly declared “I’ll never get ahead, I’m rubbish.” and as he said, he interpreted things that happen around and to him as ‘proof’ that he’s ‘rubbish’. On the other hand, when a country declares its independence or a newly-wed couple declare their matrimony, a new possibility that was not there before has been brought into being. Every yes and every no is a declaration that generates an action because when you say yes to something, you are also concurrently no to something else (for e.g, when I said no to a cheating husband, I said yes to my dignity and integrity). The declaration of I forgive you 2 years later to my ex-husband and much later to myself brought me closure and peace. I don’t know opens up space for learning. Thank you creates gratitude and joy. I’m sorry acknowledges and addresses the past and creates a new context for the relationship. What we put after I am… is the story we tell ourselves. ‘I am unattractive’ or ‘I am rubbish’ generated emotions and actions that did not serve me or my client. If we want to change our lives, we have to change the story we tell ourselves. We need to make new declarations. I made many, including I forgive me.
An invitation to explore:
- What was the latest ‘yes’ that you declared? In saying ‘yes’, what did you actually say ‘no’ to because of it?
- When was the last time you said ‘no’ — and what were you saying no to? In this declaration of ‘no’ what did you actually say ‘yes’ to?
- What is a new declaration that you wish to make that would help bring about the result you want?
Requests and Offers: ‘Can you help me please’ seem to be the hardest words. I made the biggest and hardest requests of my life at 39 after finding myself broken-hearted from a failed marriage, a collapsing business and only $16 in my account. Requests and offers are an integral part of the human experience because we are always coordinating actions with others. We make requests because we want a different future to the one we have. However, some requests are harder to make than others — and some are made better than others. It was impossibly difficult to make that first request when I found myself in that deep abyss of loss and despair for two reasons: 1) I would lose my public identity of ‘strength’ and 2) I didn’t want to be rejected. I’m glad that I did make those requests because I learned that 1) When we can share our vulnerability, we inadvertently give our family and friends the opportunity to show their love and care for us. And 2) a rejection of my request does not mean the person is rejecting me, it’s just the request that has been declined!
Not all requests are created equal, some requests are more effective than others. Effective requests have all of the following 6 elements*:
- Committed speaker (people rarely respond to anonymous requests, are you sincere about the request?)
- Committed listener (don’t make that request whilst your listener is watching TV or running down the corridor to another meeting)
- Future action and conditions of satisfactions (be specific with details with the view of generating a shared understanding for a shared commitment, don’t assume the other party knows)
- Timeframe (be specific with details, “as soon as possible/when you can/promptly/in a timely manner” are not effective because my understanding of “promptly” and yours is mostly certainly different)
- Mood of the request (making your request if you are in an angry state is unlikely to yield a desirable response, nor is making a request to your listener who is not in the right mood.
- Context (‘for the sake of what’ are you making this request for? lay out the background if need be for the listener)
Requests and offers are highly generative conversations which help us move forward. One of my clients was increasingly frustrated with the many frequent requests she had to make with the different stakeholders in her company before she can perform her part in a significant company-wide project. And she was not getting very far with her requests. As we explored further, she began to see how she could make her requests more effective with the 6 elements above and, more importantly, that she should have made offers instead of requests for some! This came from a fundamental shift in the way she saw her role — one that offers to address the concerns of these different stakeholders with the experience/expertise that she brings, and not being at the farthest end of the value chain.
An invitation to explore:
- Examine your last request made that didn’t give you the desired response. Did that request cover all 6 elements? What was missing?
- Are there any requests or offers that you need to make to bring about new actions that would give you the results you want?
Promises, Commitments, Agreements: You are what you do, not what you say you will do. This hits home hard because I was at the receiving end of one of the most sacred promises made and broken — a marriage vow. When a request or offer is accepted, a promise is in place. Perhaps, of all the speech acts, promises have the most profound impact on our relationships and public identity because they have a direct link to trust and self-esteem. The world we live in is really a network of promises and commitments — therefore, how we make promises and manage commitments determine our well-being in all aspects of our lives. There are broadly 3 types of promises: Strong (‘you can count on me, no matter what’), Shallow (‘you can count on me, unless…’) and Criminal (‘sure, of course’ — yet we have no intention of keeping!). Making criminal promises to ourselves (whether in the form of resolutions, goals..) have a direct impact on our self-esteem. We are also not doing anyone any favour, especially ourselves, if we say yes to all requests and offers that come our way and then struggle to keep these commitments. I am often asked how I am able to do all that I do — there’s no secret formula and I’m definitely not a super human. I’m still learning but my ability to be creative, useful and productive has definitely expanded since I reframed time management as commitment management. We can manage our commitments, we cannot manage time (it keeps ticking no matter!). There are 4 responses to managing promises: Yes, No, Commit-to-commit (“I’ll get back to you on Thursday after I check the calendar, ok?”) and Counteroffer (“I’m not able to do it by Friday but can definitely complete it next Tuesday.”). It is not possible to keep 100% of the promises we make as originally promised but we can actively manage them, for e.g re-negotiate the promise as new developments arise. I still subscribe to the wise words of my first boss: “Always under-promise, and over-deliver, and you will go far. I promise.”.
An invitation to explore:
- Are there situations where you fell short of the commitments that you’ve made? What steps have you taken to clean up the situation and take care of the relationships?
- What new promises do you need to make to move you towards the results that you want?
Our choice of words is a reflection of our minds; the power of the mind is the force behind speech that affects reality. As Julio Olalla always remind us, language is action because we speak ourselves into the world. In other words, these speech acts help us coordinate actions with each other and with that, we become more effective in relating, learning, living and problem-solving. Who agrees with me that this way of understanding language should be part of the language curriculum in schools?
Anthea Ong is coached by life’s many wondrous twists and turns, trained by the most authentic and insightful coach extraordinaire, Julio Ollala, formally certified by Newfield Network and internationally accredited as an Associate Certified Coach by the International Coach Federation. She strives to coach from her wounds which have shaped her more than her achievements — in her ability to listen, to be empathetic and yet the knowing that we can be transformed to who we are as she has. Her yoga and natural therapy training augments that support from an integrated whole-person vantage. She brings curiosity, tenderness and gentle irreverence to each coaching relationship with a deep compassion to serve the growth and change that the client strives for. She is privileged to have learned from over 460 coaching hours, having served over 25 clients to-date — from Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Philippines, Japan, France, Portugal, Spain, UK, USA.
In addition to coaching, Anthea is also an impact entrepreneur and investor — and sits on national councils and boards in leadership and innovation.
*These 6 elements apply to requests, offers and promises. **Much of the above have been inspired by Julio Olalla and ‘Language and the Pursuit of Happiness’ by Chalmers Brothers.
**I wrote this in August 2017 before I discovered Medium.com. :)