Tag Archive for: Speech acts


Lost in translation: 3 lessons from the term “assessment”

I am writing this from Atlanta Hartsfield Airport (ATL), returning from a delightful session with approximately 40 faculty members at Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (UTFSM) in Valparaiso, Chile on “From I Know to We Trust & Beyond: Deep Faculty Development in an Uncertain & Creative Era.”  The program was sponsored by LASPAU at Harvard, and this was the second time I had worked in this program at UTFSM. One of the nice things about working in another country is it helps you notice the assumptions built into your own culture and language.  The session was translated simultaneously from English to Spanish (and vice versa), and an issue came up around the Spanish term for assessment

Assessment was being translated as evaluación (or evaluation), and the distinction that I was trying to make was the usual coaching and speech acts distinction between an assertion, a speech act committed to expression of truth, and an a assessment, a speech act expressing an opinion, interpretation.  There was a trained coach among the faculty attending the course and he wondered whether a better translation wouldn’t have juicio (judgment).  This led to a fairly lengthy clarification of the intended usage of the terms, which was helpful to the group in pursuing our work together.

In reflecting on the episode, I think there are three lessons to be learned, and here I move from particular to general.

Lesson 1: Separating assertions and assessments is critical to improving communication.  The main intent of the session was to help the group understand how assessment-laden our speech and stories are and that understanding that others may have other interpretations of what’s going on is an early awareness that can help improve communication, fairly immediately.  The session reinforced this lesson, and the additional emphasis brought about by being slightly “lost in translation” for a time was helpful to increasing understanding, I believe.

Lesson 2: Distinguishing between assessments and judgments is also a communication-improving move.  Discussing the translation of “assessment” as juicio was also useful part of the episode.  All judgments are assessments, but not all assessments are judgments.  Judgments contain a sense of correctness (right/wrong) and prescription that ordinary assessments need not have.  As Marilee Adams points out in her choice map, once we are in judgment it is difficult to be open enough to learn or gain additional perspective.  This doesn’t make judgment a bad thing; it simply suggests judging is a choice, and if has become a reflex, it may not be serving us as well as a more judicious spectrum of assessment.

Lesson 3: We attach our normal sense of term to others’ usage at our peril.  As this episode unfolded, I was a bit puzzled at first.  I had been fairly careful to define my terms fairly carefully and give the sense of the terms assessment and assertion that I intended.  Nonetheless, language is loaded, and we all use and interpret terms according to our own sense of them.  Within a particular discipline this can be a useful shortcut to mutual understanding, but if we are learning something new outside of the boundaries of our usual experience and knowledge, assuming that our private sense of a term can be a prescription for misunderstanding.  In a coaching setting, a coach will almost always ask a client what they mean by the particular usage of a term, rather than assuming the coach understands the sense of a term.  In a multidisciplinary setting or in a learning setting, being curious about how language is being used is an important step toward accelerating understanding and achieving shared meaning with others.

As the methodology of coaching migrates from corporate practice to the university and the classroom, these three lessons will become increasingly salient and important as ways for students and faculty to understand each other.

Acting “As If” and Speaking “As If” Helps Make It Happen

My Georgetown colleague Ann Oliveri (here) posted this lovely short video the other day.


The philosopher and early psychologist William James said that if we act as if something were already true that doing so immediately has an effect in reality.  The video says this quite nicely with a number of different examples.

I believe an important corollary to the examples given in the video is in the special case of speech acts.  Speaking about things as though they have come to pass also has this kind of magic.  In iFoundry we talked to students about the 3 joys, the joy of engineering, the joy of community, and the joy of learning, and the cohort was more joyful, more interested in engineering, a tighter knit community of engaged learners than they otherwise would have been.  

When clients change their story (and believe the new story), the feel better, act better, and get better results almost immediately.

This sounds too good to be true, but it is a part of a number of ancient traditions. The Buddhist practice of samma vaca or right speech points in this direction as well as the Toltec practice of impeccability with your word.    To engineering ears, it sounds like a violation of some unstated law of nature, conservation of hardship, or some such thing, but I bear witness as a hard-nosed engineer who has seen it in action to often to doubt it any longer.

Try it.  You’ll like it.  Act as if and speak as if, and immediately start reaping the benefits of the way you would like things to be.

To Complain or Not to Complain

In coaching, one of the ways to help clients to achieve greater peace is to work to help them reduce the proportion of their day they are occupied with negative emotions, and one of the regular sources of negative emotion is complaining, especially complaining about particular others.

What is a Complaint?

What is a complaint? Merriam Webster gives the following definitions:

  1. expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction
  2. (a) something that is the cause or subject of protest or outcry (b) a bodily ailment or disease
  3.  a formal allegation against a party

The first sense of the term is the usual one in everyday usage, particularly the sense of expression of dissatisfaction.  To complain is to express dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and to lodge a complaint against a person is to express dissatisfaction with something they have done (or not done) or the way in which they have done it.

Are Complaints Like the Weather?

Now here’s the interesting part.  What is the usual source of complaining about others in our lives?  I hadn’t really thought deeply about this question and previously assumed that complaints were like the weather, something that just happens to us. In the same way that some days are sunny, and some days are rainy, I used to think that my complaining was a state of nature, and that some days just had more complaining built into them.  

I started to learn otherwise on the first day of my training as a coach at Georgetown (here).  Great coach Neil Stroul was our instructor that day, and he was talking to us about five types of speech acts (here): assertions, assessments, requests. commitments, and declarations, and that morning he was emphasizing the importance of clarity in request making as important in the coordination of human action.  In the middle of that seemingly abstract and fairly theoretical discourse, he asked us to think of a time when we had a complaint against another person.  He went around the room and debriefed a few individual examples, and then generalized the pattern as follows:

Complaints against others arise because you believe an agreement exists between you and another, but no request has ever been made. 

I thought about this and realized that, at least in my experience, Neil was right.  In thinking back over my own lifetime of complaining, I realized that most of the time my unhappiness was unjustified, because I had never made a request or my request was so fuzzy or unclear as to be extremely difficult to satisfy.  Of course, there were times when I had made requests clearly and well, and there were times were someone didn’t do what I had asked, but the frequency with which my complaining was completely unjustified surprised me, and from that moment forward, I resolved to (1) be more intentional about request making and (2) to make better requests.

Making Better Requests

To make better requests, first, signal you are making one by using a simple preamble: “I request….” or “May I request…?” Too much of the time we miss the mark oftentimes by being overly polite (“Would it conceivably be possible for you to….”) or indirect (“The trash hasn’t been taken out yet.”), and as a result, we risk that others will not recognize that a request has been made or our politeness suggests that it is OK to ignore the request without a response one way or another..

Second, make sure that you have the elements of a clear request in both the situation you are addressing and the words that you utter:

  • An engaged speaker.
  • An engaged listener.
  • A clear description of the thing requested.
  • A time of fulfillment of the request.
  • Conditions of satisfaction of the request.
  • A common context of the request.

These things and others are well described in the book, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness (here), but the main point here is to recognize that much of the unhappiness that arises from complaining can be eliminated by simply recognizing the need to make more and better requests.