“To Be” or Not “To Be”

November 9th, 2017 | Posted in Change, Clarity, Fit Leader, Leadership Fitness, leadership training, Reading List by

Is it possible that the words we use prevent us from seeing the world and the people in it as they really are?

Our words directly shape how we see the world and how we engage with others. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist, suggests that “by altering our use of language, we also revise how we perceive reality.”

Take the “to be” verbs: am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being. Alfred Korzbyski, author of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, has proposed that we eliminate the “to be” verbs from our language.

According to Korzbyski, when we use the “to be” verbs, we “objectify our perceptions and make them absolute and fixed.”

Let’s look at the following example:

If I say that Susan is lazy, it comes across as a powerful fact. Is it possible that Susan only appears lazy at the moment, or that something specific is causing Susan to act lazy? By using the word “is”, I am reaching a conclusion that may in fact not hold should circumstances change.

By stating that Susan is lazy, I am in part suggesting that little can be done by Susan or others to change this reality. She is simply lazy and that is that.

In reality, this sense of permanence is illusory, and works against the possibility that Susan can change, or that even our own perception of Susan might change.

Here’s another example:

If we say that Mike is a troublemaker, we suggest that Mike’s trouble-making behavior is somehow fixed and not likely to change. He just is a troublemaker. This way of describing Mike robs him of the ability, at least in our mind, of evolving into a more responsible individual.

In The Possibility Principle, Mel Schwartz describes how the “to be” verbs “block us from seeing life as a flowing and unfolding experience”, and he suggests the following changes in how we think and speak.

“I am a loser” can be replaced by “I feel like a loser.”

“I am not smart enough” can be replaced by “I feel stupid when I don’t know the answer.”

“I am depressed” can be replaced with “I feel depressed.”

Spend some time this week paying attention to how your use of “to be” verbs might unfairly be limiting your life or the lives of others by too quickly defining what is or what isn’t true.

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