Watch your language

I was having lunch with a good friend the other day and he was telling me about a trip he recently took. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of months, so we were enjoying the opportunity to catch up and soon slipped into the familiar rhythm of well-acquainted banter.

During the majority of the trip he had felt very much at ease and in flow. He was relaxed, happy to be one with those around him and everything just seemed to float along nicely. He met some interesting people and came home feeling inspired and renewed. But soon after returning home, he was troubled by the way this state of flow seemed to melt away upon reentry. Within a few days he noticed that he was no longer riding the wave of serenity that had seemed so effortless during his time away. He was sinking back into routine, and along with it some of the distractions and habits that he’d been free from on his trip. As he noticed this happening, he started paying attention and trying to figure out what it was that made that fluidity so hard to hold on to. He had one revelation in particular that really struck me.

After being home for a week or so he went into a deli and ordered some food. When asked if he needed help he told the counter worker “yeah, I’ll take a turkey and Swiss.” (I don’t recall exactly what he really ordered, but turkey & swiss is what I started craving as I was writing this…) At that moment the realization dawned on him: While traveling, he had been in unfamiliar territory and acting graciously. He is typically a polite and thoughtful guy, so it was very much “please” and “thank you” and “let me hold that door for you” all throughout his travels. Asked for his preference from a variety of servers and clerks numerous times on his trip he had inquired “could I please have” in return each time. And yet here he was at home, in his own community, declaring “I’ll take.”

We discussed this for a while. He was focused primarily on the timeline and external circumstances of the event. For me, the language and the location were the interesting aspects. In the space of a few days he went from a traveler full of gratitude and grace to a resident possessed of entitlement and demand. Why was it that when out of his familiar surroundings he found himself defaulting to courtesy, but when in his own community he lapsed into this language of entitlement? It’s a subtle shift, but a significant one. In the interest of keeping things digestible, I’ll take these on one at a time.

I’ll save location for another article, so for the time being let’s stay focused on the issue of language. In asking, the interaction is about the other, whereas in stating it is about the self. “I’ll take” doesn’t require us to act with empathy and consideration for the person on the other end of the transaction. By the same token, it also fails to require the sandwich maker to concern themselves with the level of service they provide.

You could argue that it’s merely an issue of semantics, or that the worker’s job is to provide the service (sandwich) and there’s nothing wrong with stating your order as such. But there’s more to it than that. The language we use is a reflection of our values, and provides the contextual lens through which others will view their interactions with us. In declaring our intent to take, we essentially abdicate responsibility and possibility from the service provider and claim it entirely for ourselves. If the goal is for me to take, to conquer or claim, then a satisfactory outcome would simply be that I came into possession of my desired item. I got the sandwich. I defeated the individual and won the object; no art was required in the act of the exchange. The quality of the interaction becomes irrelevant, secondary to my ability to triumph over the circumstances: in this case, to avoid making myself lunch by using money to leverage someone else to do it for me.

We also create an environment of conflict, however subconscious. We are demanding a service, thereby challenging the autonomy of the provider. It becomes an exercise of power – “I have the money, so you have to do the work” – rather than a partnership or shared experience – “I’d like to exchange some of my money for some of your service.”

So, you ask – “who cares?”

Well, you, for one, if you intend to be a leader of people or thought in any capacity at all.

The craft of leadership is an alchemy of sorts, aimed at harnessing human dynamics in pursuit of a common goal. But the goal doesn’t always start out as a shared one, and that is often where our work must begin. Part science, part psychology, part creative experimentation – there is no perfect formula. The good news is that our own human nature can supply the data we need to successfully and effectively navigate the process of creating shared purpose.

Think of it like this: If someone approached you, say a neighbor or a friend, and said “I’ll take a cup of sugar,” or, “give me your lawnmower,” how would you be likely to respond? And really, has anyone ever come to your door to borrow sugar to begin with?

But if, on the other hand, that friend asked, “could I borrow your lawnmower, and possibly a cup of sugar,” you’re likely to have a much more harmonious exchange. They’ve given you a choice, rather than a directive, which lets you assume the role of benefactor in granting the request. You lend the mower or give the sugar because you have decided to do so, which also has the unintended side-effect of making you feel pretty good about yourself (despite any reservations you may have about the abuse your lawn equipment may be about to endure.)

What happens in this exchange is actually a bit of a psychological bait-and-switch. By asking a question, the friend gives you the freedom and authority to do exactly what they wanted you to do – almost as if it was your idea in the first place. And they get it with much less resistanceAll it takes is a subtle shift of language to place you in a position of empowerment.

Now, I know these examples may seem a little silly. Of course the clerk is going to make the sandwich. It’s their job, and presumably they’re not going to refuse to make anyone’s sandwich if asked because they need to earn a living. And you are by no means required to loan out your lawn & garden equipment or distribute your baking supplies to anyone who comes knocking. But the principle gap that they illuminate is highly relevant when it comes to successful leadership.

Where the domains of Emotional Intelligence are concerned, you can refer to these examples and ask yourself a few simple questions to bring focus to all four quadrants:

  • Self-awareness: “Am I seeking to make a contribution or a withdrawal in this interaction? Am I approaching this situation as a leader with intention, or as a dictator on autopilot?”
  • Self-management: “How can I empower this person to do what is needed, in a way that reduces resistance and increases positive output in the system?”
  • Social-awareness: “What effect will my approach to this interaction have on those around me? In what ways might it be possible to find common ground for the betterment of the system in the process of meeting my objective?”
  • Relationship management: “How can I demonstrate my greater vision of leadership within the context of this situation, to build trust and partnership for the future?”

As an exercise, think about taking this lens and applying it to yourself. Try it for a week, keeping these questions in mind with each interaction you have. Take note of your observations, and at the end of the week look back at what you find. Don’t make corrections on the fly, at least not yet. The point here is to gather information before we start implementing change.

Are there any patterns you notice? Anything stand out? Comment below or email me, let’s explore your findings!


Up next: Location, location. location.

Also published on Medium.