All Change is Linguistic

That title is lifted from Peter Block, and I want to make sure credit is given where credit is due.

I think those four words are wonderfully meaningful and I want to add my own take on it (any flawed interpretation is all mine, not Block’s). It has to do with a larger question: the relationship between thinking and doing.

Do Thoughts Drive Actions, or Do Actions Drive Thoughts?

This is not some abstraction. It matters greatly to businesses whether you can better think your way into right action, or act your way into right thinking.

For example: can you better train for soft skills via role-playing, or through readings and multiple-choice quizzes? Are pick-up lines best practiced in a bar? What about sales pitches?

So, do thoughts drive action or does action drive thoughts? The proper answer is ‘yes.’ Actually ‘yes, but it depends.’ Proving causality of anything is an impossibility, much less proving proportional causality. But in the commonsense world we all live in, we can see that the arrow points both ways. The only useful question is: when does it point which way?

Acting Your Way Into Right Thinking

This is the kind of phrase you hear in 12-step programs, or from motivational speakers, or—interestingly—lean management. It usually means, “You’ve been kidding yourself all these years by talking a good game; when are you actually going to [quit drinking] [lose weight] [ask her out] [practice what you preach]."

You also hear it in HR groups, advocating for certain kinds of change management: “You’ve been kidding yourself all these years by talking a good game; when are you actually going to [go to the networking meeting] [hire someone not a mirror image of us] [actually promote on values].”

Seems to me these are typically situations where ‘whole body’ involvement is required. You can’t just isolate one aspect of a situation, but rather you have to engage physically and emotionally in a full sense.

When Thinking Drives Action

Does that mean thinking works better in small, focused change efforts? Yes, but that’s only part of the story. For example, visualization is used by athletes to tweak the mindset, or attitude—before a golf swing, before a marathon. 

But there’s another sense in which thinking drives action: it dates back to Aristotle, who suggested there is a steel cable leading from thinking to doing.

Aristotle has his modern counterparts in NLP theorists, change specialists and neuro-everybodies who all point to the semi-conscious inclination of the brain to create beliefs, assumptions, habits, instincts—and then to act on them. 

How do you drive thoughts? Some tried-and-true methods include message-repetition (depending on your perspective, this equates either to propaganda or to staying ‘on message’), linkage (‘Marlon Brando smoked, it must be cool’), or authority (‘my doctor recommends it, it must be good for me’). You may think that in this day of digital social media we are immune to direct mail and tv ads from Madison Avenue—wrong, wrong, wrong, the same techniques are here, just in new clothing.

All Change is Linguistic

Full circle back to Peter Block. One of the most profound ways we have of unconsciously altering mindsets and attitudes is through language. Most overtly, Big Message repetition uses language. Chant “Obama was born abroad” enough times and you’ll get 20-30% of the US public to believe it.

But it isn’t just the denotation of words that drives change. It’s the emotional tone as well. The language of etiquette and empathy drives reciprocity—the most important form of influence, according to Robert Cialdini. The tones in which such words are said also add influence. Even the vocabulary of differing languages (French vs German) convey differing meanings to those who hear them.

To Think? Or To Behave?

If you’re wondering whether to change people or organizations, the usual answer is ‘both.’ But it does make sense to lead with one or another depending on the situation. 

The power of frequent close, personal, physical interaction—in schools, in the military, in marriage—probably does more to tear down racial barriers then any educational program. Better language constructs will follow.

But if you’re trying to get people to behave rightly in a corporate merger, for example, slogans are your friend—lead with language like ‘make a friend first,’ or ‘the first word in merger is ‘me,’ or ‘no more old-company name.’  

Whether you start with the behavior or the language, you’ll get to both. All change is linguistic, sooner or later.