"We are deeply grateful to the thousands of people who have participated in the learning sessions that have led to this book." So begins the telling acknowledgment of a publication written by two influential researchers, educators, and consultants in the field of adult transformational learning. After many years of working with individuals and organizations worldwide to promote long-lasting change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey now bring these learning sessions to the reader in a volume intended to support personal and professional development.
How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work is an interactive learning experience that takes the reader through a series of exercises that the authors call "technologies." These technologies, which are grounded in the readers’ own experiences, elucidate how the "forms of speaking we have available to us regulate the forms of thinking, feeling, and meaning-making to which we have access, which in turn constrain how we see the world and act in it" (p. 7). To counter those constraints, Kegan and Lahey introduce seven new languages and demonstrate how those languages can be used to create more constructive experiences in the workplace.
The first part of the book examines how we subconsciously keep ourselves from reaching our personal and professional change goals. "If we want deeper understanding of the prospect of change," write Kegan and Lahey, "we must pay closer attention to our own powerful inclinations not to change" (p. 1). To uncover these subconscious constraints, Kegan and Lahey lead the reader through an activity that they call the "four-column exercise." In this exercise, the reader can practice the use of four new languages that provide "more focus, increase direction, and enhance capacity" (p. 7).
The first column of the exercise helps the reader move from the language of "complaint" to the language of "commitment," since Kegan and Lahey believe that "beneath the surface torrent of our complaining lies a hidden river of our caring, that which we most prize or to which we are most committed" (p. 20). In the second column, the reader is asked to list the behaviors that keep him or her from fulfilling the commitments listed in column one. In so doing, the reader moves from the language of "blame" to that of "personal responsibility." In the third column, the authors lead the reader from "New Year’s resolutions" that are typically developed to counter those behaviors to the language of "competing commitments" where the reader recognizes why these traditional resolutions tend to fail. In the last column, the reader uncovers the "big assumptions that hold us" and comes to understand "the assumptions that we hold." It is through this final move that our mental framework, which often dwells in our subconscious, is revealed to us in unexpected ways. Through the combination of these four columns, the reader comes to realize the significant ways that he or she prevents the success of his or her own desired change.
In this first part, Kegan and Lahey seem to combine Kegan’s theory of adult development with practice most directly. Language used in these first four chapters, specifically the use of the constructivist psychology term subject/object relation (p. 76), is more fully explored in the authors’ previous publications. Although the reader does not need to be familiar with these more abstract psychological terms or theory to engage in the work of this book, other works by Kegan and Lahey might help further realize the potential of the tools in this text.
In Part Two of this book, Kegan and Lahey advocate for subtle but powerful changes in the way that we communicate with each other in the workplace. in chapter five, for example, the authors explore the difference between the language of "Prizes and Praise" and that of "Ongoing Regard." Unlike the traditional system of rewarding individuals through prizes and praise, Kegan and Lahey suggest giving feedback to colleagues that is directive, specific, and non-attributive, since it is more sincere and personal. In chapter six, Kegan and Lahey compare the language of "rules and policies" to the language of "public agreement." In the former, the members of the organization see the regulations as intended to create order from the top down, whereas norms created through the language of "public agreement" develop competence from within (p. 118). In chapter seven, the authors advocate for the language of "deconstructive criticism" rather than "constructive criticism," since deconstructive criticism does not assume that the feedback provider holds all of the answers. In each of these subtle shifts, a powerful new way of interacting evolves that not only supports the organization’s growth, but also that of the individual.
Part Three of this book, Carrying on the Work, provides specific examples of the ways others have used the seven languages to "build and maintain the machine." By reading the stories of real-life characters such as "Emily" and "Peter," readers can explore practical ways to move reflective work out of the pages and into real life.
Since it is clear that the transformation suggested in this book is rich and complicated work, Kegan and Lahey have given careful consideration to the reader’s learning process. With humorous anecdotes and an accessible writing style, the book draws the reader into its pages. Once there, the participant feels as if he or she is part of a private tutorial with clear instructions for the technologies, coupled with helpful examples of the seven languages for transformation. Although this book is written for adults in the workplace, it is useful for readers in other domains of their life. Continuing the practice of reflection will also be of invaluable help as individuals’ contexts change, assumptions build, and minds are challenged to grow.