Naming the thing is a superpower — when did you last use it?

The power of a declarative statement is often missed.

In business, management, consulting, and faciltation (and I could go on), the person who can identify what is actually happening can help to move the situation forward tremendously.

Like ‘the nudist colony in which it is the glances which are veiled’ (ever been in a changing room and noted how you magically, automatically avoid seeing genitalia?), we’re socially designed not to mention the elephant in the room. [Editors note: this comment could be considered hilariously ambiguous; please consider revising]

In the negotiation meeting, when you are stuck, why not say ‘we seem to be stuck’?

It clears the air, changes the focus, changes the energy — perhaps unsticking.

If someone goes off on a long rant, it can be powerful and kind to say ‘you seem angry about that’?

When you’re selling hard, and someone flinches at a price, the instinct is to breeze right past it, hoping you all pretend it’s not a problem. The power move is to really focus in: ‘oh — you seemed to react to that, does that feel uncomfortable to you?’

When the emotions are up, or down, name it.

On the Japanese railway, the driver will point to the signal, and say ‘the signal is green — OK to proceed’. Their copilot will point to the signal and confirm ‘the signal is green — OK to proceed’. Embodied, real, clear, concrete.

When there’s a power drill coming from the room next to the seminar room — mentioning it helps people accept and deal with it better.

Similarly, ‘gosh, I’m tired’ or ‘it feels like we’re going through a challenging section, doesn’t it?’

All of these draw attention to what is normally subtext; they allow us to consider whether we want to go back to pretending this isn’t the case, address it, or simply accept it and move on.

Can you think of examples of ‘naming the thing’?

4 thoughts on “Naming the thing is a superpower — when did you last use it?

  1. It’s also a good way to understand the power dynamics of a group – one way to tell who has the real power in a social system is to see whose novel language sticks and whose doesn’t. The corollary is also interesting – you can gain power quite quickly by consistently coming up with language that better fits the experience of the group, so that people use your words rather than the ones they were using before. This can also lead to frustration when the power contours are so steep that incredibly apt words can’t be adopted, because they haven’t been “sanctioned” by the powers that be … like when you say “we seem to be going through a challenging section” (and it’s blatantly obvious that we are) but no one can either confirm or counter it because the CEO is in the room and hasn’t moved or said anything yet.

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    1. Thanks Steve, that’s a great observation and raises a lot of thoughts in my mind. I’ll try to observe and see how this plays out in situations I’m in. I don’t mean that it doesn’t play out exactly as you say – it clearly does – it’s just that, at the very least, this is one of those things which shows that there are multiple dimensions, flavours, or currencies of power, doesn’t it?

      I also think it’s one of those systems thinking powers – perhaps linked, as I think you implied in your article https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/11/22/how-many-systems-thinkers-were-bullied-at-school-%E2%80%A2-meaning-guide-steve-whitla/, to an element of hypervigilance?

      I vividly remember a sales trainer at PWC asking ‘which of the women paid close attention to how they dressed this morning?’ (all the hands went up, confirming the trainer’s expectations – women have to maintain hyper-awareness of their ‘presentation of self’), then ‘and how many men?’ – and being surprised when my hand, alone, went up – i.e. I always thought (not necessarily successfully – might be a surprise to some!) about managing how people might perceive me based on clothing.

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      1. The macro example at the moment is Putin enforcing the language of “special military operation” on the Russian population. The same pattern gets sent up a fair bit in comedy: https://youtu.be/Pubd-spHN-0 … I wrote a thing about this a while back on LI: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/who-makes-up-language-your-organisation-steve-whitla/

        The same dynamic is often present when acronyms are born: a person with social capital groups things on the whiteboard and gives the grouping a label, and then someone in the group shortens the label for convenience, because everyone is using it, because they have to. It would be fun to explore the etymology of common acronyms through the lens of the CSH questions?

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