Speech ACTS are Sticks and Stones

Speech ACTS are Sticks and Stones

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world- and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end- is being destroyed.

- Hannah Arendt-

Notice what happens in your mind when you read the words speech acts?

If you take a moment to reflect, you will likely come face to face with one of the beliefs that most of us hold about speech—speech does not have substance, it’s not real in the physical sense of things. The old line “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” conjures up some of this meaning. We recognize that the pen, or written word, is mightier than the sword, but we stop short of giving speech the same power as an act. Speech isn’t something we can touch or observe like someone’s actions. But given our love of free speech as Americans, why don't we fully embrace that speech is in every way an act, something very real and certainly as impactful as any action one can take?

The power of a simple pairing of the words “speech and acts” reminds us that even though speech does not seem like an action—like walking, jumping, or throwing a ball—it is certainly an act. To fully appreciate the speech as an act we have to embrace the notion that an utterance of words, especially telling a story, embodies action. When a speaker takes that action to speak, it is particularly impactful when the audience takes in the speaker’s words. Listening to the story is an event in the minds of others AND the words and metaphors uttered by the speaker are a full world in themselves. When others join in that world of meaning they are aligning with that reality. They are participating in the speech act.

When listeners inhabit those worlds they are entering a belief system, and a belief system is a system of permissions. That means speech acts not only ARE an act, they unleash a system of permissions for the listeners to act. The distance between the actions taken in that virtual reality of the mind and the world we live in can be so short as to be inseparable. We have seen this writ large during the Trump ascendency. He has spoken and encouraged a belief system that says it’s OK to attack, harm, and even kill those that would be other, or in opposition of their beliefs. Normalizing hate, reinforcing the beliefs that attack the identity of those that are non-white, recycling the tropes of reverse discrimination are the residents of the Pandora's Box that Trump has unleashed with his speech acts.

The power of a simple pairing of the words “speech and acts” reminds us that even though speech does not seem like an action—like walking, jumping, or throwing a ball—it is certainly an act.

I have had to ask myself as events have unfolded over the last few years, “When did we lose the connection between speaking and a sense of responsibility for our speech?”

How do we rebuild trust in the spoken word?

What I am curious about is how this external, political environment will influence the directions and trends of speech and accepted behavior in the corporate realm.

I believe it begins with the deeper understanding of what speech acts are in the world of leadership. It is my hope that the following will be helpful to leaders who want to understand how to have more meaningful impact with their speech acts.

“Speech act” theory originated with John R. Searle’s work and was made more widely accessible by a Chilean philosopher, Fernando Flores. David Kantor also uses “speech acts” to describe the dynamics of group conversations.

Being skillful in primary speech acts is fundamental to effective leadership when communicating and when engaging others in the processes of sense-making, decision-making, strategic planning, change management, etc.

A quick summary of the times when it’s important for leaders to be especially aware of the power of speech acts and the speech act label include:

  • When engaging people in a vision for a preferred future (DECLARE/OFFER AND ACCEPT);
  • When making judgments about progress and gaps (ASSESS);
  • When co-creating and then determining “the facts” of the matter (ASSERT); and
  • When initiating productive action (REQUESTS AND PROMISES)

The following will go deeper into each of these types of speech acts. I will follow this chart with a provocative question to both leaders and to those who support leaders’ work. I hope the question triggers comments and thoughts from the readers.

Speech ACTS are Sticks and Stones

How might these discernments about communications and speech acts support your work as a leader or as someone who supports the work of leaders?

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