Updated: Nov 18, 2018
What if I told you I could trace most of your cognitive stress to a single two-letter word?
And what if I told you that once you realized how this word hijacked your brain, you would all of a sudden begin to see examples everywhere of how not only you, but also your friends, partner(s), family, and co-workers keep falling under its evil spell?
And further, that as you mastered the way out from under this tiny word's clutches, you would feel more peace, greater joy, and greater facility with your workplace communications? The underpinnings of your reactions to things would come into focus: the feelings, wants, needs, and desires behind your communication would light up. Life would unfold in a cleaner, clearer path before you. Complex questions would simplify. Meetings would end quicker, with a faster path to consensus. Disagreements would resolve more easily.
You might even feel you hold the key to world peace.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
This one tiny word has a stronghold on our culture, language, and ways of interacting, and forces us to think untrue (or less true) thoughts. It does this by drawing our attention outside of ourselves, to a source of authority that most times, doesn't exist, though we act as it if does. No wonder we’re confused, anxious, and exhausted.
We’ve outsourced reality to a nonexistent authority, and waste oodles of precious life energy chasing it down.
We may call this timewasting mental activity spinning, perseverating, worry, or, in the 70’s, neurosis. Because of this two-letter word, we fall prey to the delusion that we're less-than, do not know, or cannot tell what's true for us. We're duped. Doomed. Delinquent in our further-than-necessary proximity to truth.
It’s not our fault.
And, we alone, or with others, can switch it up.
We can stop outsourcing reality by bringing more attention to how we use the two-letter word that hijacks our brains. We can reclaim peace, connection, and joy.
Do you know what that two-letter word is?
Here's a hint: I gave it to you right up there.
That's right. The word is...
It works like this: Whenever we point to what "is"...good, bad, right, wrong, messed up, inappropriate, and so on, we refer to a source of authority outside ourselves that probably doesn't exist. I say "probably" because some communities do have agreed-upon principles of governance, whether institutional, biblical, or conventional. So we can, in many cases, meaningfully say, "that's wrong" (or against the rules, or a sin), according to an outside source.
However, I'm talking about those instances in which we appeal to a non-existent source of authority using "is" and other forms of the verb "to be," such as are, am, ought, and so on. We say such things as, "Am I kidding myself?" "He is a jerk," and "That is wrong of them to think that way."
Wrong according to what or whom? And wrong how? With what consequences?
You might argue that we have general agreements about right and wrong in our culture, and that, for example, the world’s religions generally seem to agree on a unifying principle resembling, “Do no harm.” You and I would be in agreement about that.
However, if all humans agreed across the board about notions of right and wrong, we’d have no arguments, nor debates, nor need for court systems. But in fact, we disagree--frequently--and invoke multiple and competing notions of right and wrong, good and evil, usually as ways of expressing underlying feelings, and needs
Sentences like “They are wrong,” and “Am I doing the right thing?” entrain our mind along a well-worn path of external reference, or what I call outsourcing reality. Most of us outsource reality every day, in ways large and small, without realizing it, every time unknowingly we use forms of the verb "to be" in particular ways. As a result, we think less clearly, know ourselves less well, and connect with others less deeply than we might otherwise.
Aside from a small group of linguists a few decades ago at MIT, very few folks have paid much attention to this ubiquitous linguistic phenomenon that hides in plain sight in our everyday speech. Nonviolent Communication (NVC), based in the work of Marshall Rosenberg, gives a great process for stripping away the usages of "is" that hijack our brains. But there's more to be said on the larger context of internal reference, and how to use NVC even more skillfully. So I continue to broaden this inquiry with my students and clients, here and now in this post, and in my upcoming book on this topic.
Some people do practice clear thought, gain high degrees of self-knowledge, and enjoy great relationships without ever excavating, dusting off, and mastering this artifact of the English language. However, learning how is and other forms of the verb to be operate in our minds and bodies equips us with an extremely powerful tool, like a crowbar for getting underneath our everyday delusions.
I will often gently reframe a coaching client or trainee's layers of external reference (I am, she is, he ought to) with an internally-referenced question like, "Are you feeling sad, because you're wanting more connection? Are you feeling angry, because you’re wanting respect?" In NVC, this type of query goes by the name "Empathy guess."
Institutions of all kinds got built by focusing on external realities: schedules, metrics, bottom lines, and so on. Now the most forward-thinking workplaces have begun to see how making space for inquiry into their team members' inner worlds opens up new opportunities for contribution, and belonging. This in turn leads to higher engagement, retention, and morale.
Internal reference work also serves as a foundation for better writing, verbal communication, and relating in general, which helps managers with their teams, executives with each other, and anyone whose work depends upon communicating and relating well with others.