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Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2a
This is the second in a set of six essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.
Language-Action and the Constitution of Organizations
For the vast majority of the moments of our lives (including much of our sleep, in dreams remembered and not), we are doing things in language, and language is doing things to us. The opportunity of this topic is that “language-action” offers a radically improved path to observing what we are doing as we are speaking (and listening). When we speak we create new interpretations, moods, possibilities, and futures in the bodies and minds of those with whom we are speaking (and for ourselves). Therefore, one of the distinctions that will be essential for us is language-action: observing language as communicative acts.
The English philosopher John L. Austin (1911-1960) was the first to carefully distinguish a class of verbs that he called performatives – verbs that, rather than describing actions, perform actions. (John L. Austin, (1975). How to Do Things With Words, Second Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 148.)
When someone says ‘I promise to …,’ he is performing the action of promising, not reporting that he will, did, or might promise. It turns out that all human languages contain performatives. For the purpose of designing work in organizations, I distinguish six classes of performatives:
The most important, and most interesting thing about these verbs is that, when we look carefully, we can see that it is with these acts that we human beings invent our futures. Very often we don’t actually use the words; people make promises all the time without saying “I promise,” and make requests even more often without saying “I request” (for example, “The soup needs salt” and “Don’t you think that it is cold in here?”)
How do these language-actions show up as we are inventing our futures?
* With declarations we create new distinctions: identities, products, roles, services, companies, names, etc. – with which we take care of our concerns.
* With offers, requests, and promises we orchestrate new spaces in which we take action, and we produce mutual commitment and coordinated action.
* With assessments we take stock of our world, evaluate our progress, and assure that we are prepared for action.
* With assertions we test and build confidence in our judgments, and assure that we are coordinating effectively and reliably.
Here’s an example. Right now Greg thinks that he is getting prepared to get married. How did that happen, he asks himself? Here, approximately, is the story, told in a way that helps illuminate language-action in our lives. Greg and I have been talking about his interest in having a woman in his life for a long time (that is, we shared assessments about his life with each other).
About a year ago, I said to him, “You know, there is a woman out there right now who is looking for you – looking for exactly the person that you are.” As he listened to that declaration, Greg said he realized for the first time that there was a truth there. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m looking,” he said, “and in that moment I realized that on the other side of the rainbow, someone was looking for me.'” Soon, in a matter of a few weeks, someone new showed up in his life. She was recently divorced. They dated for a while, and then she went and dated other people for a while. They remained friends and stayed in contact. At the end of 2007, while he was traveling, he started getting phone calls and emails from her in which she said she wanted to marry him. They spent what Greg called “three wonderful days” together, and at the end he asked her if she still wanted to get married. She looked away, and he interpreted that she was frightened by the prospect.
Then, last week, “things changed.” She arrived, asked him to marry her, and insisted (requested) that he take her seriously. All of this, over the last year, happened in a particular background. A year ago, Greg shifted from the idea that the challenge was to “find a woman” to an interpretation that what he needed to do was to create room for a woman to find him. “The amazing thing,” he says, “is that there was no effort involved in making the shift.” The way that he listened to the declaration that I spoke opened a space for a new possibility – a new interpretation – and he began to live his life from that new possibility.
Stay tuned. More to come.
© Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
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