The Language of Value

Tom GibbonsChange, Organization Development, Presence3 Comments

All of us want to feel valued.  We have a need to understand that we have value to ourselves and to others as we move along in our very complex and uncertain lives.  In order to feel this value we tend to compare ourselves to some cultural standard of value that has emerged over time and that we personalize in our own unique ways.  In our time, the standards of value to which we compare ourselves seem to have become increasingly unattainable.  Senior managers are supposed to be able to foretell the future, we’re supposed to be wonderfully fit, eat all the right foods, have great balance in our lives, lots of fulfilling relationships, give to charity, and all the while make enough money by age 55 to retire and travel anywhere we want.

Almost all of us are failures to some degree by these standards yet they are insidious and constant and grind away at our need to feel valued.   It also seems to be insidious and constant that one of the ways we deal with this need to feel value in ourselves is to lower the value of others.  Finding ways to portray and perceive others as ‘less than’ so we can feel ‘more than’.  While there are many overt ways of doing this, perhaps we have become so adept at this that we engage in very subtle ways as well.

Norbert Elias, the eminent process sociologist pointed out that part of the civilizing process was the learning we do to interact with others effectively. We need to learn this because we are increasingly dependent on others to live our lives.  We need others, even for things as basic as food, and thus need to interact effectively with others.  Many of the things we learn become unconscious to us, simply normal modes of behavior for the times and cultures we live in.

Some of what we learn is the appropriate use of language and when the use of language becomes unconscious it is very easy to not see the impact our language can have.  It is this subtle and mostly unconscious use of language that can play out in making others ‘less than’ so we can feel ‘more than’.

As an example of the subtlety of this, imagine you were looking out a window with someone and you said, “Hey that’s a nice view out there isn’t it?”  An accepted response would be for the other person to express their opinion of the view being observed.  They may say, “Well I don’t think it’s very nice at all.”  Nothing out of the ordinary has happened in this interaction but there is a subtle emergence of meaning that one person is wrong and the other is right.  We express our perceptions as right or true, making a different perception wrong or false and this has the effect of helping us to feel better, more right and thus we feel greater value.

If we look at this exchange through Mead’s ‘conversations of gestures’ framework we would also acknowledge that in order for this potential positioning of right and wrong to occur it would need to be both people together coming to this meaning.  Just as we express our perceptions as right we tend to hear those expressions the same way.  What we say and what we hear tend to emphasize the same dynamic and language too often becomes an invisible dance of positioning ourselves as ‘more than’ or defending ourselves from ‘less than’.

Imagine if, after hearing ‘Hey that’s a nice view out there isn’t it?’ there was a pause, maybe silence and a different response.  “What do you mean?  What are you seeing?” to explore what that ‘nice’ might be from that other perspective.  It changes the exchange from one of ‘positioning’ to one of exploring. 

Over the past number of weeks I have really tried to observe this ‘positioning’ dynamic occurring and it seems to me that it happens very, very frequently.  It creates interactions that are more about a dance of offense and defense than exploration and I think in these particular times we need much more exploration with our interactions.

Author – Tom

3 Comments on “The Language of Value”

  1. Tom,
    Thank you for this. It resonated for me in my work with addicts. A classic dynamic in addiction is for the addict to “position”, as you say, in order to make his/her own choices not as bad as others–“At least I don’t stoop to ____.” or “My situation is so much worse that I deserve to ______.” It is a key part of justifying their behavior. One of the ways I sense a woman in our program embracing her recovery (vs. just getting clean) is her move away from positioning towards identification. We really have a whole lot more in common than not. And the parts that aren’t in common are best explored, as you say.
    However, that exploration involves quite a bit of skill. As I read this I wondered how stages of development play into a adult’s capacity to explore differences. I suspect there must be a basic amount of security in oneself in order to be open to exploring differences. Where in the stages of development does that develop/get compromised?
    Again, thanks for sharing.
    Lynée Brown

    1. Thanks for your comment Lynee. I think your analogy to the addicts you work with is telling and what I was trying to convey in this post is that the dynamic you illustrated with addicts occurs very frequently, too frequently, in what might be considered normal day to day interaction. It is not as noticeable and perhaps is mostly unconscious but nevertheless just as compromising to ourselves and others.

      Your comments on exploration and skill and security in oneself touch on a topic that I have been thinking about for a long time. While I do think the points you make are needed and challenging there may be an additional way of considering this. Often when we think of ‘oneself’ or ‘identity’ or even stages of development people assume that identity is quite concrete and is mostly a built in thing. The reason Mead’s work is mentioned in the post is that in his conversation of gestures concept, identity is a constantly emerging process of making meaning through our interactions. It emerges not of ourself alone, nor even just in response to others,but inescapably with others. Our identity at any one point in time is the patterns of interactions we have experienced and this provides a sense of a continuity to ‘who we are’. Who we are is certainly not a thing however.

      Therefore things like stages of development are interpreted as part of a process and not steps to a further stage and thus are not developed or compromised but experienced as patterns. For me this feels like a far more accessible way to make choices about how we might go about making changes in our day to day lives. We need not search for a compromise in our development and then try and fix it, we just need to try and change one interaction today and see what happens.

      The title of the post you did for us some time ago ‘Talk Matters’ – http://bit.ly/8dRlWZ – is appropriate here I think and is a lot of what this most current post is about. Talk does matter, since it is the most common way we interact with one another and it is each of those interactions that holds the possibility of transformation or continuity. We should be very careful with our talk and language since in a very real sense it is who are.

      Thanks again…. It’s good to have you here.

  2. Pingback: Busyness, Feeling and Value « TMS Americas

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