What we say affects what we do

I attended a workshop this week entitled Collaboration: How to do it. There were around 50 workshop participants from all over New Zealand and a guest speaker from Australia. During a session of introductions by all participants it became clear that there was a wealth of interest, skills and experience in this thing named collaboration.

It also became clear that the participants had their own perspectives on what they understood collaboration to mean and these perspectives could vary quite significantly from the meaning others held for the same term. The resulting discussion at the workshop was wide-ranging and at times ambiguous.

My background in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) helped me to reflect that part of what was going on at this workshop was the nominalisation of the term collaboration. Nominalisations are verbs or process words that have been frozen in time and become nouns. We turn the actions or processes into things or objects.

The very title of the workshop illustrates the action of collaborating being nominalised into Collaboration: How to do it.  It can be useful to nominalise as it enables complex aspects of our experience to be expressed in a single word. This provides a focal point around which interested people can gather, such as at this workshop.

However, it can also severely limit our ability to communicate the richness of our experience to other people by deleting useful information. An interesting effect of nominalisation is that people are removed from the processes and instead are replaced with things to which responsibility can be assigned. We can rid ourselves of any responsibility by blaming the process.

It seemed to me that this was happening at the workshop where collaboration was being discussed as if IT is a tool outside of us that will result in outcomes. The following quote from is a useful reminder about the relationship of people and processes: “It is people not processes that are responsible for outcomes and people can change their behaviours and modify the processes until they get the outcomes they desire.”

So how do we people involved in collaborative processes change our behaviour and modify the processes until we get the outcomes we desire? We keep up conversations like the workshop mentioned and we pay attention to the preciseness of our language. We invest the time to question each other and fully understand what the other person is saying to us. We ‘let go’ more and build trust, relationships and shared accountability with our conversations.


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