Towards WE & BEYOND – Impressions from a shared journey Part XVI

In our last Blog we talked about the ability to 'holding' an idea, concept, suggestion until the time is right. This was one of the 6 essential dialogue skills. The second dialogue skill, which we will address in this blog, is Voicing.

Voicing is about the ability to share an idea in a way and language that others can understand, and therefore engage with. This is not as trivial as it may sound, particularly not in the context of radical innovation - or sustainability-driven innovation for that matter.

While the next bit might seem a little dry and theoretical we'd like to share some terminology and definitions that are relevant in the context of Voicing.

The first term we'd like to introduce is Semiosis which is derived from the Greek word sēmeiô, which means "to mark". Here what Wikipedia has to say about Semiotics: "Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the study of meaning-making, the philosophical theory of signs and symbols. This includes the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy,metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication."

The process of semiosis leads to the creation of Language. Again drawing on Wikipedia, "Natural languages are spoken or signed, but any language can be encoded into secondary media using auditory, visual, or tactile stimuli – for example, in graphic writing, braille, or whistling."

Language in tun is the means by which humans are able to acquire and use complex systems of communication. Three important properties of the human language are productivity, recursivity, and displacement (more on these three in a moment), and from the perspective of this particular blog the most critical aspect are the facts that language relies entirely on social convention and learning and that languages evolve and diversify over time. Or as Wikipedia puts it, "the use of language is deeply entrenched in human culture. Therefore, in addition to its strictly communicative uses, language also has many social and cultural uses, such as signifying group identity, social stratification, as well as social grooming and entertainment." what it means is that language is context dependent, and what a word means in one context might be different from what it means in another! Which, if you are trying to 'sell' something new, and if people understand it to be different things, is a problem.

Let's come back to the three properties of language:

  • Productivity: language, words, enable us to communicate. However, whether we actually understand each other depends on whether we share social convention and learning - it depends on shared experiences. If we do not have that shared experiences, chances are that we associate different meaning with the same word! 'Power' and 'energy', mean different things to different people, depending on context.

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  • Recursivity: this refers to the fact that language is constantly developing. Words are used in changing contexts with changing meaning and words are transfered from one cultural context to another, sometimes loosing their roots in the process. See for example the word 'rubber': in the US it refers to something that prevents pregnancies, in the UK it refers to a device for erasing panicles writing or drawings… It you are asking for a 'rubber' is it advisable to understand the meaning of this words in the given context! In order to safeguard the emergence of common understanding it therefore is crucial to develop a certain level of language consciousness and have an awareness of the fact that language is not stable.

  • Displacement: refers to the fact that the human language is unique in being able to refer to abstract concepts and to imagined or hypothetical events as well as events that took place in the past or may happen in the future.

Something else we should be aware of is that the language, the words we use, are only a small part of what we communicate. You may be familiar with Albert Meharbian's 'Mercedes Model'? While often used too simplified, it's essence that only a small percentage of meaning is based on the words we hear holds try in contexts that have emotional connotations - as we would argue innovation has!

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So we need to be aware that there is a rational and an emotional aspect to our communication: the rational aspect manifests itself in our choice of words - which is also a reflection of the speaker's level of consciousness concerning the topic or situation. Then there is the emotional aspects which is reflected in the speakers tone of voice, speed and clarity of speaking as well as their body language.

What does all of this mean in our context? It means that it is quite useful to be aware of the above when trying to communicate, getting appreciation and buy-in, for a new idea, concept, product, business model. If it is truly new than a commonly understood, shared language might not (yet) exist. On the other hand, if you introduce new language, or old language with new meaning you probably have difficulties being understood too! (By the way, that is why the use of visuals or art in the context of innovation can be so helpful - 'a picture says more than a thousand words' and all that.)

So, language consciousness in its fullest sense, in addition to the appropriate timing (i.e. Kairos which we talked about in our Blog Part XV), are key prerequisites for successful Voicing.

We herewith offer our sixteenth insight: If you talk about something new (different) in the old (every-day) language you risk loosing its essence; however, if you describe the new with a new language, nobody understands what you want to say! This dilemma is also referred to as the pioneer dilemma, something which you can read more about in a case story Dorothea has written on "Radical Innovation at Philips Lighting"

* Have a look here if you are interested in a more differentiated discussion on the Mehrabian Model.


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