Speech Acts Are How You And I Shape Reality

Speech acts are how you and I shape reality. Phrases like these are called speech acts: “will you marry me?”, “I’m willing to help“ and “the defendant is sentenced to death by hanging”.  The US Declaration of Independence was also a speech act -- one with profound implications.

After a speech act, big or small, the world shifts. And, as a result, new possible futures emerge, or collapse. Indeed, the ability to create speech acts is what makes humans different from animals. The Declaration of Independence Was A Speech Act 

Effective leaders recognize when a speech act has occurred. They know how to intentionally create speech acts. And, they quickly adapt to the implications of how the world has changed after a speech act.

For example, imagine a sales call during which the prospect says “I really enjoyed meeting you. Would you send me more information?” Was it a successful sales call?

Experienced sales people will tell you absolutely not! Why? Because a speech act did not occur, although they might not use the term "speech act".

They will tell you that a successful sales call requires a prospect specifically tell you out loud they are choosing to move forward. It explicitly requires: a commitment, like a signed contract; a declaration, like “a plan to buy your services;” or an offer “if you are willing to come back next week, I will set up a meeting with our CEO.” Great sales people engineer speech acts.

Similarly, the road to team alignment is paved with explicit speech acts. And each speech act is an inflection point to a higher or lower sustainable level of collective performance.

For example, a significant speech act occurred during a recent a strategic alignment workshop that I led with the leadership team at a financial services business:

The leader of the team was a new CEO. However, the old CEO was still on the team. He had been demoted. He was very angry. And, his anger and resentment was preventing the team from moving forward. Indeed, the team had stopped having team meetings because it had just become too uncomfortable.

In front of the entire team, the new CEO said to the old: “I am glad to have you on this team and I believe that your talents and experience will be critical to our success. However, the anger and resentment that you are holding has become disruptive. It is preventing us from working together as a team. My request is for you let the past go and choose to be a fully engaged member of this team. My offer is to support your happiness and success in any way that I can. However, this offer is contingent on your declaring out loud to all of us: your choice to let the past go and your commitment to playing as a fully engaged and constructive member of this team from this moment forward.”

And, the old CEO did. It was hard for him but he did it. He said it out loud and the world shifted.

The moment after this speech act occurred, the entire context changed for the team. Energy and commitment surged. The old CEO looked like the weight of the world have been lifted from him. That night we had a great dinner together. And the next day, the team dove right into to resolving its toughest people and strategy issues. And, many of these issues had been un-discussable just a day before.

In sum, speech acts are what make the difference between effective straight talk and ineffective bullying.

Try applying these questions to your team:

  • What is the toughest and most important issue facing this team?
  • What speech acts would need to occur in order to create those conditions that would make it possible to resolve this issue? Consider: requests, offers, declaration and commitments.
  • What straight talk needs to happen and who has the authority or influence to do it?

Please add you comments? What significant speech acts have you created or witnessed? What were the results?

Take a look at these links:

Saying YES or NO! -- Joel Kimmel

Everything We Say Are Lies - Warning Quirky

A New Approach

For more on speech acts,  look into the pioneering work of Fernando Flores.