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The secret life of words

When thoughts and feelings are expressed through words, what’s revealed is often a whole lot more than we may be aware we are divulging

We intend our words to convey our opinions and concerns, to help us learn and teach, to manage and consult and to support or challenge others. And, by and large, where there is a shared understanding of language, that is what our utterances achieve.

But words do so much more than this. They have a secret life, through which they also express not only what someone is thinking but a whole lot about how that person is thinking. What is important to her or him? What’s motivating them? What do they believe to be true? How do they make sense of the world?

I was reminded of this when coaching an individual recently who is having great difficulty influencing key stakeholders at work. Amongst her full and compelling story of all she had tried, how unreasonable and unhelpful other people were and how distressed she was at the whole situation, was a whole lot of additional - and helpful - information.

I did listen to the coachee’s story, but only lightly. My attention was focused on what else her words were telling me. I heard what was important to her – her values – including being cared for. She cared for others at work and expected to be cared for in turn. I heard patterns in her behaviour that indicated a perfectionist tendency and a really high driver to work hard. It became clear that she does not set great visions and drive towards them irrespective of the consequences, but is the person on the team that shows where the potential pitfalls of a project are and creates the plan to work around those. And I heard a whole lot more patterns also.

It was this information, not the narrative I heard, that gave me the opportunity to support this individual to make sense of her situation. We explored her patterns of thinking, inferred those of her stakeholders from her memory of their words, and identified some underlying differences leading to the frustration and feelings of ineffectiveness. The coachee is now more self aware, with a better understanding of others, and she has a raft of new ideas and approaches to help her make the impact she wants to.

Paying attention to others’ language, listening out for how they are thinking, changes the quality of a conversation. It allows for much deeper discussion, far greater influence and better relationships, at work or elsewhere. All thanks to the secret life of our words.

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