red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work:
Seven Languages for Transformation

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass ©2001


"What do you want...and what will you do to keep from getting it?" With that opening quotation from their Harvard colleague the late William Perry, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey launch us into a voyage of discovery — understanding the possibilities of change by attending to our powerful inclinations not to change. Saying we want transformation, we instead master self-sabotage, continuously manufacturing "the antigens of change." Unless we accept and appreciate both capacities, real change will be elusive.

Not only is How We Talk a book for individual development, it's a book "for people interested in supporting the transformational learning of others," what Kegan and Lahey consider "an increasingly necessary feature of effective leadership, since nearly all leaders [formal or informal]...are called upon to lead processes of change."

Kegan and Lahey suggest that both organizations and individuals thwart change through a "third force we call dynamic equilibrium..., our own immunity to change." Their tools for change are "novel language forms" that shift "a customary mental or social arrangement into a form that increases the possibility of transformational learning."

We must pay attention to the way we talk with others in public and in private, singly and in groups, and we must pay attention to the way we talk to ourselves, since we run that intimate conversation almost continuously. Kegan and Lahey maintain that all leaders are leading language communities," and so have even more power to "shape, alter, and ratify the existing language rules." The question is not whether leaders use language to affect the workplace but how they do it.

Part One of How We Talk introduces a "new technology" — four new languages that uncover your personal immune system, your dynamic equilibrium, forces maintaining that immune system, and possibilities for transcending it. These tools take you "from

1. the language of complaint to the language of commitment
2. the language of blame to the language of personal responsibility
3. the language of 'New Year's Resolutions' to the language of competing commitments
4. the language of big assumptions that hold us to the language of assumptions we hold."

In Part Two, three additional languages transform "a customary interpersonal, social, or organizational arrangement into a novel form, both to support smooth operation of the new technology and to make it continuously improvable, from:

5. the language of prizes and praising to the language of on-going regard
6. the language of rules and policies to the language of public agreement
7. the language of constructive criticism to the language of deconstructive criticism."

Through a four-column model, case studies, and collaborative activities, Kegan and Lahey deconstruct and challenge current meanings of concepts like "constructive criticism." They illustrate how our underlying assumptions, which, while seeming to be perfectly rational, lead us to sabotage our efforts toward change. They show us new ways to talk with ourselves and each other, to test our assumptions, to embrace the deconstructive — positive — conflict of their "baseball" model, and to build more civil and more productive workplaces.



Peter Block: The Answer to How Is Yes

Phil Harkins: Powerful Conversations

Kerry Patterson, et. al.: Crucial Conversations

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