A Behavior Change Starts
with a Language Change

How you use language influences how you act

All of us know our behavior creates the kind of life we get. When we’re dissatisfied with our life, and hope to create a better one, we usually change what we are doing as many times as is necessary until we finally produce the results we want.

Getting better outcomes is the purpose behind most management strategies.

To remain competitive and relevant, organizations large and small look for new ways to motivate each worker to be as productive as possible.

Sometimes they use modification techniques. These techniques reward desirable actions and ignore or punish undesirable ones. Eventually individuals or groups either make the desired changes, leave on their own, or get bounced .

A close analysis of how we behave shows that our actions are generated by our emotions. When we feel happy, we laugh, sing, or dance on tables. What we don’t do is shout at people, give them dirty looks, or break their furniture. Not as long as we are feeling happy. Our joy won’t allow us to act that way.

And if we’re feeling angry, we might complain, ignore people around us, or quit working on whatever it is we’re doing. What we won’t do is join a choir. Not until our anger is replaced by another emotion that is equal to it or stronger.

This suggests that the better way to change how someone is acting is to change the emotion behind their action instead of the action itself.

If the emotion generating the action is intense, simply asking someone to change what they are doing will not work. Ask any parent who is dealing with a child throwing a temper tantrum. Telling him to stop his tantrum doesn’t work. His feelings are too intense.

He won’t stop until he either runs out of energy and his anger becomes less intense, or his feeling of anger is replaced by a different feeling, such as the joy he feels when Daddy caves and buys him the Super Soaker.

This analysis also applies to anyone trying to change compulsive behavior. The feelings that produce such activity are so strong that compulsive gamblers or shoppers believe they have no choice but to gamble or shop. Telling them to do otherwise is a waste of time.

If we look closer, and if we move back one more step, we discover that emotions are triggered by what you care about – your values. And what you care about influences your moral or ethical behavior.

Family, friends, and, possessions are obvious values for most of us. When we perceive they are at risk, we move quickly to protect them. Likewise for values which are not as obvious to us, such as our reputation, our political opinions, and our moral or religious convictions.

If they are suddenly questioned or maligned, we often shift immediately to defend them. This is often the explanation for impulsive behavior.

But anytime we respond impulsively, we are responding to an assumption we are not aware of. That assumption is a language action, and our response and its attendant feeling are its product.

In short, language is what makes things happen, deliberately and consciously, or impulsively and without our awareness. The interpretations we make about ourselves and what is going on around us generate our emotions and our actions.

The way to make deep and long-lasting change in our lives is to change not only what we are doing but, more importantly, the language that makes us feel and do what we feel and do.

Let’s look at controlling behaviors and at the language that produces them.

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