Action, feelings and meaning

Bill Isaacs’ book Dialogue highlights some useful analysis by David Kantor. Kantor developed his thinking about family systems and took it into the organisational world. One of his most interesting ideas is about three “languages” of conversation.

These are the language of power or action – often the preferred mode of those in management, in part because of the pressure they are under to deliver results; then there’s the language of feeling; and the language of meaning. Go to any meeting and you might notice which languages get spoken at different times, and which ones are dominant.

I’m not a big one for three part models but this one has prompted a lot of reflection for me – this post just skims the surface for a few matters arising.

This will vary by context but I often feel the language of action gains dominance over the other two. For instance, people will often mutter about “all this talk is all very well, but unless we take clear actions, it’s meaningless”. Taken at face value, this seems to be saying meaning is really only a subset of action. This is often followed by some nodding of heads by people who I suspect don’t really agree, but think it’s safer to comply with the dominant voice.

I remember attending a breakout at a large conference where a delegate held forth passionately on the importance of relationships and connection. Without trust, without connection, nothing worthwhile could happen. She was clearly holding out for feeling and meaning over action. Yet in the plenary, she gave a very watered down version of this speech, followed by something like, “of course, that counts for nothing unless we agree clear actions”. I don’t actually think she really meant this at all, but in a larger group felt too vulnerable to risk challenging it.

One of the interesting things I notice is that if I get a chance to talk to people who like to talk action and persuade them to talk about their feelings, and why the action is important to them, some interesting things happen. They become more accessible and their calls for action acquire a resonance they previously lacked. Without that, they tend to sound increasingly rigid, even bullying… which means they either generate open conflict (in many ways preferable) or (more often) passive-aggressive resistance or reluctant psuedo-commitment.

At its worst, the shadow of the languge of action is bullying and violence. I wonder how many unwise or unjust wars were precipitated by people demanding action over meaning or feeling?

Of course, there are shadows to other languages as well – individuals and groups so mired in their feelings that they are unable to move or act; pedants nit-picking over details in the face of the need for urgent action.

For each language there are obvious downsides: what I take from this model is the value of at least reflecting on which one we favour and what resources the others might provide us.

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