Language Creates the Future, Part 2: Immutable Truths
By Karen Carnahan & Marsia Gunter
In part one of this blog, we discussed how language creates the future, and how the language of “barely enough” and other forms of limiting language do not serve us.
In this blog, we’ll take this further and discuss how much of the language we use comes from what we call immutable truths, and how we can change those internal conversations into language that actually serves us and lays the foundation for our future.
Immutable Truths and How They Work
Have you ever had a thought about work that sounds something like this? “No one in this place can really be relied on except me.” This often gets translated out loud into “Oh here, don’t bother, I’ll do it.” You’ve just created your own immutable truth in action! All through language.
An immutable truth is language in the form of an assumption, opinion or the like that we have decided is true. We then act as if it’s true, and are alert to “evidence” that proves it to be true. We are of course much less alert to any evidence that might suggest it’s not true! We see what we want to see, and we want to see what we’ve said!
Or how about this one? “This project/task/operation/technique is really difficult.” Ever tried to instruct someone in a task when your background though is: “This is really complicated. I don’t know if he/she will be able to understand the instructions?” The likelihood is that you will start to give instructions that are themselves too complicated. Or perhaps you preface your instructions with “Now this is really complicated…” Language creates a future for people, and the future that just got created here is one that is difficult and complicated. The hapless employee who has received the instructions is now off and running with “This is complicated.” As a result the task does become complicated, the employee may indeed get hopelessly lost, and your viewpoint has become “validated” into an immutable truth, to everybody’s detriment.
If you still don’t think language creates the future, think back to your first job and the time your supervisor, in a moment of exasperation, exclaimed, “Are you ever going to get this?” He or she was probably joking. But how have those words stayed with you all through your career? Are you still wondering, or doubting, if you’re ever going to “get it”? Or what about the well meaning third grade teacher who said you weren’t born a natural leader, implying you’re out of luck? Now you’re all grown up, the owner of a multi-million dollar business, and you’re still working at being a leader and worrying that someone might find out you aren’t really. That long ago language created a future – of insecurity.
You do a similar disservice to your employee Bill when you assume he’s not very competent and cant’ be trusted with anything critical. So when Bill makes a mistake – as we all do, inevitably – that “proves” you’re right about him. In the meantime, if Bill never gets a message that he is being counted on for quality work – is it any wonder he doesn’t deliver it?
Recognizing an Immutable Truth
When sleuthing for your own “immutable truths,” bear in mind they usually show up in the form of a private thought in our head, and get spoken out loud in a somewhat less dramatic or harsh form. We may go from thinking “Nobody else can do it” to saying “I’ll do it.” To check if something you are thinking or saying is functioning like an immutable truth, pay attention to the apparent permanency of the statement. Do you believe this is true and will never change? Does it fell like cement around your feet or a rock around your neck? For some samples, let’s round up the usual suspects.
- “It takes time to develop a profitable business.”
- “Cash flow is always a problem for small business.”
- “As long as we continue breaking even, we’ll make it.”
- “Times are tough.”
- “That’s the way it is.”
- “That’s how it’s done in the industry.”
Immutable truths are like bacteria. There’s lots of them, they’re always around and within us, and if we’re not careful one or more of them will lay us low.
Bringing it Home – Get Personal
Track down your own personal assumptions-cum-immutable truths. Start with your assumptions about money, then move to your assumptions about customers, and about fellow employees. Be sure to look closely at your assumptions about particular team members, especially people you consider problematical. Then take a close look at assumption about work, about owning or working in a business.
Make a list, detailing what you usually say on the subject of:
- Fellow employees
- A particular employee
- The market
- The economy
- Being a business owner
- If only I were the boss
- Being right
- Doing things your way
- How the company is doing, and where it’s going.
Rehabilitating Immutable Truths
Once we’ve identified our personal immutable truths, we can, if we choose, change them. The first thing to determine of each immutable truth whether is serves a genuinely productive and useful purpose of the business, or not. If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, change it.
Changing an immutable truth is not as hard as it sounds. Certainly you need to guard against backsliding into old habits of thought and speech. But changing the language in your head and in your speech is eminently possible. After all, you made it up in the first place. Although we can get stuck in rock-hard solidity if we let it (which is what happens with our immutable truths) in essence language is very malleable. And since language creates our future, we can re-create and re-shape our perspective.
Why it Matters
What if you started seeing and describing your company as a vital and profitable business? How would that change the decisions you make and the way you make them? What if you started thinking and speaking of your staff as an energetic and talented team that can produce results? How would that affect their initiative and creativity, and your willingness to listen to their ideas?
Changing language really does help to change perspectives. Take the case of John’s company, the one we mentioned in part 1 of this blog. We asked John and his staff to shift their language. We told them to begin by saying, “We are a profitable company”. Then we got them to follow this up with these questions: “What do profitable companies do? What actions are appropriate for a company that is profitable?”
The result has been a transformed company. The company has moved from a break-even operation with little accountability for profitability into a business that now has cash flow budgets and accrual budgets; sets financial goals monthly and meets them; provides bonus and incentive programs; and is consistently profitable.
Being in Mastery
Being in mastery of business ownership and in the mastery of leading includes being in mastery of what we think and what we say, knowing that language generates everything, that it can generate a reality that is effective or ineffective. It means knowing what is being painted with our private thoughts and public words, and to paint with intention, since each picture painted may last a lifetime.
Keeping This Distinction Alive
Be awake and stay that way. Start paying attention what you are thinking and saying. Invite your staff and team members to do the same. Keep one another honest. Do you mean what you say? Are you aware of how other people might be hearing you? What future are you creating? Do you know the impact your words might have on others and the actions they take? Be consistent in your commitment to watch your mind and watch your mouth. Lead yourself and others in practicing “Language Creates Your Future.” When you do, you’ll find life at work a whole lot more exciting, fun, and vital!
Are you interested in changing your trajectory and taking a more active role in shaping the future for yourself, your company or your organization? Explore the future you want to create through ongoing coaching to develop business growth strategies, professional leadership development and business ownership, and transitioning your business for the next generation. We believe in the future you envision, and stand with you to help achieve it.