We exist amidst the on-going dialectic of writing and speaking.
Language abounds. We are learning in every moment.
But do words teach?
Everyone has experienced the futility of language when trying to convince someone of something they have no intention of ever believing.
I remember during my teen years trying to convince my father that recycling and soymilk made sense. He could not make sense of either. Now, 20 years later, he's an ardent recycler and whenever I visit, his fridge is filled with soy milk. Did my words teach? He does not think so. He has no recollection of our dinner debates over their merits. He simply came to it on his own. Or maybe the culture embraced both and he did too.
As this blog is boldly named "the language of conflict", I thought it would only be fair to really challenge the power of language to resolve conflict or even to teach.
I'm not sure. Yes, through language we learn to be careful of certain foods, medications or maybe even people. We learn how to do our taxes so the IRS only speaks to us once per year, but does it teach us how to live?
Life Experience is the True Teacher
Life experience seems best suited for teaching us how to live. There's nothing like a good dose of failure to help one consider a new approach.
At my friend's wedding last week someone recounted a dear story that illustrates this point. My friend, about 3 years old at the time, had a mother who insisted that she put boots on before going out in the snow. My friend apparently refused quite ardently. She marched outside in the snow. Within just a few moments she bounded back inside saying,
"What kind of mother let's her children go outside without any shoes?"
The child did not even remember the lecture her mother had given her. Yet she got the message pretty darn quickly when she started crunching around the snow barefoot. I wonder, if to some degree, we mostly operate like that three year old. We think we learn through language but maybe we really don't. This question has been on my mind for awhile.
Language Creates Focus
Today I had a breakthrough regarding this.
No, words may not teach directly, but they may help us choose where we focus and in doing so guide us to experiences that demonstrate the lesson. In other words, at a party last night people wanted to hear all about the juice fast my friend and I just completed. I didn't think it made a fascinating discussion, but they wanted to hear and I told them what we did without much confidence that they would ever use the information. I was kind of wasting my breath.
Though, this morning I realized that because I had their minds focused on juicing for around 5-7 minutes, it initiated a kind of file building. Their brain is thinking about juice. So, if they go to Whole Foods this morning and see a juice bar their brain will go, "Juice. We were thinking about juice last night. Is this something we want now?"
Once you get people to focus on something they will look for it, consciously or not. So it was not the words that taught necessarily, it was my ability to hold their attention on a given topic. Their brain will then be programmed to look for more of the same. Words can direct focus.
We have all experienced this. Musicians notice music everywhere, designers see fashion, angry people find things to be angry about.
Language and Conflict
Language guides. It tells us where to send energy. How does this impact conflict?
When working with individuals in conflict, rather than trying to teach them with words, consider guiding them to focus. Focus on "lines of flight" out of their conflict (John Winslade) or creating bridges/ bonds between people and groups (Robert Putnam). You can also help people focus on creating a better formed story (Sara Cobb), one that increases legitimacy for the other.
Through language direct focus towards solutions.
While doing this... stop lecturing. Wait, is this blog a lecture?
Instead, trying guiding people. Guide people to focus on solutions. Guide people to better understand and appreciate the others involved in the conflict. Show them what joy, prosperity and flourishing can really look like through the example of your own life. Make prosperity look more appealing that strife.
And, as always, please let me know how it goes.