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June 1, 2017

Words Matter. Context Matters More.

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Remember in first grade when your teacher said, “it isn’t what we say, it’s how we say it?” Well, your first grade teacher was right. What we say and how we say it supports the creation of our emerging reality and reflects our perspectives and beliefs about our current reality. Where we’re speaking from (the context) impacts the landscape of the reality we create even more than the actual words themselves (the content).

As a tool to become more aware of the difference between context and content, we encourage our clients to be explicit when they’re presenting content that isn’t factual by saying “My story is…” or “I have the thought that…,” or a similar phrase in their own words. The key is to allow ourselves to take responsibility for our mental constructs instead of claiming it as the gospel truth.

In the early stages of practicing conscious leadership, people often misuse this approach unconsciously to gain control (counter to the intention), rather than to remain curious and create genuine connection (the intention).

For example, this particularly shows up when giving and receiving feedback. “My story is that you are lazy and have a sloppy work ethic. But that’s just my story” doesn’t create a very open dialogue. In one conversation I witnessed with a CEO and his VP of Finance, it went something like this: “I think we could be in trouble by making this change with our clients.” His boss replied, “Well, that’s just your story.”  What learning can happen from either of these places? Not much. Simply putting the words “my story is…” into any sentence isn’t necessarily taking responsibility for the reality that it is your story; it’s using the words as a delivery agent for your judgements. What can be a connective tool becomes a divisive weapon.

From day to day interactions above to large-scale emotional, logistical, or financial issues, genuinely taking responsibility for your story as your story is a game-changer.  

You can start small. For example, you might say something like this to a colleague, “I noticed that you turned the other way when I was approaching you in the hall this morning. I made up the story that you’re angry at me because I didn’t return your call yesterday.” Simply coming clean with your story and holding it lightly can empower yourself and others to see what comes next from a conscious place.

Words matter. The context we speak them from matters even more. [Click to Tweet]

In this era of political correctness, it’s especially important to acknowledge and understand the difference between content and context, to take responsibility for where we’re speaking from. It’s easy to get caught up in the language and the words, but that’s just my story.


If you want to understand more about the power of separating facts from stories, read CLG co-founder Diana Chapman’s post with a real-world example of a team separating fact from story.

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