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Masterfully speaking Featured

8:00pm EDT June 28, 2001
Change is an unavoidable reality for every business owner.

To maintain an acceptable level of success, a company must keep pace with advances in technology, internal growth and the competition. The cost of failure is high not only for the business, but for the company leadership as well.

In ''How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation'' (Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Company, December 2000, $24.95, 235 pages), Bob Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, developmental psychology professors at Harvard Graduate School of Education, have compiled examples of individuals struggling to transform the way they work. Kegan and Lahey lay out the importance of using the proper words to facilitate lasting change.

Here are three issues they tackle in their book.

Barriers from within
''There is currently a huge gap between the aspirations for change within organizations and the capacity to create and implement it,'' Kegan explains, adding that he contests the internal obstacle that convinces people they want everything to remain part of the status quo.

Language typically used within the workplace conveys rules and polices rather than public agreement, Kegan argues, thus building an environmental barrier that must be knocked down before change can be attempted. Understanding that internal conflict and learning how to use positive communication to overcome it are the first steps toward creating lasting personal and organizational change.

Personal immunity
Have you ever wondered about that widespread, contagious language used in many organizations that slowly poisons the environment? It's called BMW --bitching, moaning and whining -- and it often develops as a defensive mechanism by employees with unaddressed issues.

Kegan and Lahey say BMW can be defused if leaders recognize and acknowledge employee complaints. By directly facing problems, the real issues can be addressed and removed as impediments to change.

Kegan says the language of personal responsibility is not often used. Acknowledging one's own responsibility in everyday situations promotes productive internal conversations and an opportunity to learn from the stories we tell ourselves.

Maintain a healthy balance
To move forward with productive change, people must not only examine their communication style, they must also disturb the delicate faade they have created to protect themselves against change within their work environment.

Kegan and Lahey say too many adults hold tight to the belief that because they are grown ups, their assumptions must be the truth. That creates a faade that says it's not important to look at alternative options as potential realities.

But, the authors contend, by looking at your assumptions rather than looking through them, they will no longer be a lens to the world. The assumptions will simply be food for thought, not locks on the doors of change and improvement.

Worth the time?
Although ''How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work'' is loaded with logical theory that is strongly supported by examples, the ideas are, unfortunately, too buried. While trying to focus in on its worth, it's easy to get lost in the book's academic wording.

But good business leaders make time to explore within as they hunt for new productive ideas to move their company forward. And for those readers who have the patience to persevere, Kegan and Lahey offer more than a lion's share of productive ideas designed to help business owners get started on the path to lasting change.

How to reach: ''How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work,'' (800) 956-7739

Jossey Bass website