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2 January 2017

Language and the Sensation of Meaning Making

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

Last week, I went SCUBA diving with my two 16-year old children off the southern coast the Dominican Republic. Not a bad way to spend a mid-winter’s day. Last time I spent that much time far below the surface of the water was 25 years ago, when I was in the Cayman Islands, testing out my newly finned feet and my oxygen-tank-assisted breathing technique after having completed my SCUBA certification in Ecuador. Back then, as now, I spoke enough Spanish to function pretty well. Back then, as now, I had to learn the underwater signals that not only help me communicate with my diving buddies, but, in the extreme, can mean the difference between life and death. But unlike now, back then language was just words, just a way to communicate with another person. And if I couldn’t use the language with which I was most facile (spoken or written English), I could figure out other ways to communicate.

These days, I make completely different meaning of language—I see it as not only a door into human meaning making, but as a powerful way to shift our meaning making when our current ways of making sense are not working. Let me explain–first the “door into meaning making” part. I’ve been learning and teaching about adult development–how we humans construct our reality, and how our individual constructions of that reality develop over the course of a lifetime—for many years now. In the years since Jean Piaget first described children’s intellectual development from birth to early adulthood, many theorists (Kegan, Cook-Greuter, Torbert, Berger and others) have extended his work, offering theories that attempt to describe how people’s entire meaning making systems can, but don’t always, evolve over the course of a lifetime. What all of these theories have in common is that they seek to name a “stage” of development, and they use language as the means through which to do that. Thus, when I say language is the door in, I mean that it is the primary way we use to determine how a person might be making sense of the world and of herself in it.

Language is everywhere, and it is nearly always available, except, of course, in those instances when our most familiar and comfortable form of language is limited or absent. So it makes good sense that language is the primary way that researchers (and more recently coaches and other helping professionals) assess a person’s stage of development. And because our language is not only a manifestation of how we make sense of the world, but also a key shaper of that sense making, language is also really useful as a simple (if not always easy) way to make shifts in our meaning-making. Here’s an example of how, for me, a very small language shift has turned out to have quite a big impact on the way I make sense of myself in the often-conflicted space of being a mother and also being a professional.

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine (who also happens to be a developmental coach) noticed that I often said things like “I need to check in with the kids,” or “I have to get home right after we finish up with this client engagement so I’m not away too long.” One day she asked me, “what if you changed the need to’s and have to’s to want to’s? I wonder how that would change the way you make sense of the conflict you feel?” And so began the experiment. Over time, simply shifting one or two little words has changed the way I make sense of myself as a mother and a professional quite significantly. I am easier with it, feel less pulled by choices and more in the choices. My friend was listening to my words and got curious about the meaning that gave rise to those words. She also knew that the words gave rise to my sense making and was therefore curious what might happen if I shifted the words.

Having been a student of language-based meaning making for many years, I wasn’t all that surprised at one level about the power of the small language shift. I must admit, though, I was surprised at how that shift showed up in my sensations and emotions. When I say “I have to,” I feel a slight shallowing of my breath, a sense of spinning, of not trusting my own wisdom. When I say “I want to,” or “I don’t want to,” there is an ease in my breath, a feeling of groundedness in my feet, and a sense of calm centeredness in my core. Does it make my decisions any better? If I could know in advance what “better” would look like, I might be able to answer this question. But I do feel as though my decisions are more grounded, that I trust my own wisdom in ways that were unavailable to me before.

Language is just one of many manifestations of human meaning making. While it may be the most accessible, the one to which we are most trained to pay attention, it’s also the case that our language actually co-arises with our emotions, our cognition, and our physical sensations; all are part of the complex, interconnected system we call a human being. Circling back to my recent experience of SCUBA and Spanish, it’s easy for me to see that when the automatic (and mostly unnoticed) nature of my spoken language is disrupted, my emotions and my physical experience are heightened. Because my language is not on autopilot, the other domains of my meaning making are more available to me. For the first 10 minutes under water last week, I felt fear and uncertainty—not simply because I was underwater with only tank-provided oxygen to breathe, but because I could not keep in verbal contact with my children to see if they were ok. I had to keep turning around to see that they weren’t in danger, and I felt the fear with my entire body. The fear and uncertainty eventually morphed into excitement, and then into calm and awe. And the unavailability of my automatic language not only gave me access to a heightened emotional and physical experience, it also offered me different ways to intervene in my experience. When I felt slight panic at not being able to breathe well enough, for example, I slowed my breath, and then suddenly things seemed safer, more manageable, even delightful. I notice a similarly heightened non-linguistic experience when I am speaking or trying to understand Spanish. It’s as though I must pay more attention to the other domains of my meaning making, to notice through those lenses how I am interpreting both my context and my internal experience. And when I cannot shift my experience through my (less familiar) language, I can do it in other ways, because meaning making is a whole body experience.

In our Growth Edge Workshops, where my colleagues and I train coaches to listen deeply to the meaning that gives rise to the language our clients use, we always remind our participants that the miracle of human meaning making is complex and precious, and that, therefore, learning to recognize it is and should be hard—that we should never believe we can actually know how another person is making sense, that the best we can do is to be intensely and reverently curious. I also remind them that human meaning making is a holistic phenomenon, that it arises from the whole of who we are, and that language, while an available and very useful way in, is partial. As coaches, let us remember to pay attention to our clients’ wholeness. And when they are seeking to shift the way they make sense, the whole of their experience is fair game for experimentation.

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