Language and Reality

Language and Reality

You just dumped sand on another child’s head.
That upset her.
You should be more careful.

Three different kinds of language to talk about one event.

sandcryYou may have noticed that I often begin a subject by addressing the way we talk. Language is something we think with, filter what we look for, and justify ourselves around. In any field of study participants have to make sure the language is clear. When we are precise about the way we talk about the world, we see it differently and can take common action.

To work together, for world peace, environmental stewardship, or enhancing the lives of young children, we talk with the assumption that what we say represents what we mean. The listener hears our words and interprets them—with a parallel assumption that what they hear means the same thing. Often we miss. Well, it’s stronger than that: we usually miss.

We can’t assume the words that come to mind have the same meaning for listeners unless we intentionally work on the words. Always. To be reliable, the words we use must have a common meaning.

Chrs Argyris (1923-2013)

Before I begin I invite you to differentiate ways we talk. If we can recognize how language is used, a path opens new understanding. How we say things affects what we learn and what we attend to. Language doesn’t arrive out of thin air, it’s been handed down over centuries. The way we say things brings deep archetypes from our culture and experience. Expressing our thoughts in language can be insightful, for sure, but it can also limit awareness and, more essentially, engender emotionally charged disagreement that stops cold our ability to most wisely take political action or help a child who is in distress.

ladderThe ladder of inference described by Chris Argyris begins at the bottom. Each rung upward describes the journey from actual phenomena in the world to the actions one takes. You can see how the meaning we make of an event influences our actions and filters what we then look at. We can get trapped if we aren’t careful. This happens around us every day. The trap hides the mistakes we are making.

I promise it is worth the time to examine the ways we put ideas into words when we discuss what is happening with a child. We can totally screw up communication, if we don’t have mutual agreement to intentionally talk only this way or only that way. We waste a lot of time talking past each other and tomorrow’s mistakes remain the same as today’s.

Three Levels of Inference

The ladder above shows only one brain working. We benefit when we have a structure for thinking together. When multiple brains work together each person on the team brings their own six-rung ladder when they talk about what to do or think. We can find ways to work together when we understand how we use language. If we isolate the language we use in this reflexive loop, we can make another, simpler ladder.

Physical Reality — What is directly observable to our senses, what we can see, hear, taste, touch, etc., is experienced as a fact. In relation to children, physical reality is observed actions — what a child does or says — and data we have about it. Child pours sand on another child’s head. Child causes another child to cry an average of 2.5 times a week.

Socially-constructed Reality — After a small group of people discuss their meanings and assumptions about a child (rungs 3 and 4 above), they might conclude that the event has an agreed-upon meaning. The kind of talk changes from being about facts themselves to a conclusion or belief agreeable to all who participated in that discussion that one time. (Others may not agree, but this one group does, at least for the moment.)  It’s hard to remove from one’s hair. When a co-constructed meaning is established, it becomes normative for that particular group. It has a new kind of reality. It is real in the sense that based upon that agreement people take mutual actions, notice things, and interpret events with that shared lens. A team view is constructed by the team, because it intentionally worked on co-constructing a meaning from that physical reality.

Personal Reality — We all have our own judgments, opinions, and beliefs acquired in our life experience. Most people are more than willing to share them, almost automatically, without necessarily having to think about it very much. I think it’s not safe. Opinions aren’t inherently bad or good, but who really knows if one’s opinions are valid or not?

We might all agree that opinions and judgments are unreliable. If we do, we have a socially constructed reality about personal reality.

Opportunity to Distinguish the Three Levels

I refer you now to the 05:23 video of Cory at The Easel on Vimeo. This is my way of offering the opportunity for people to construct their own understanding of the distinctions among the three kinds of statements about reality. I offer a PDF exercise sheet that cooperative groups can fill out together after they watch a couple of times. After you do that you can look at a PDF key as an example of how I would fill it out.

The Behavior Management Protocol is careful to use only Physical Reality to talk about children. What we or you think about the options or what to do next uses Socially-constructed Reality. You can talk your Personal Reality whenever you wish, but what you say is now deemed unreliable. Wise or not no one really knows.

Changing What We Do Takes Time and Diligence

Slide04Children are learning; we are learning. Hopefully, as I wrote in the beginning, this learning is a reciprocal process; all parties are learning from each other and changing over time. The learning and changing can be beneficial in enhancing opportunities or it can be destructive in hardening habits that lessen opportunities. Regardless, learning is always present; people change. Whether it is enhancing or binding depends upon the experiences we have in the moment. Some children learn to behave in undesirable ways that can become entrenched. When adults bring their own entrenched ways to the encounter, we’re stuck.

I wish to show a path that creates the opportunity for a community to reflect and explore ways to correct and restore well-being and wholeness. It is not the only path, of course. Many paths can lead to movement out of locked habits towards personal presentness and congruity. The Behavior Management Protocol is not the only path, of course. I present it here because it has been well tested thousands of times. It works because it is systematic in its examination of the physical reality of the unique situation and the considered reality co-constructed by people working as a team who are also committed to common action. If what the group of managers do doesn’t change what is happening in a satisfying direction, the group changes the plan. The protocol outlined below rapidly alters undesirable modes of responding because it is designed to socially construct agreement, which then can be tested by consistent action to see if it builds new ways of being.

The protocol builds from facts we establish about the physical reality, offers opportunity for a group of people — the managers, staff, assistants, parents, and family — to consider a menu of alternatives, and opens a way to find agreement on a proposed action plan. When everyone has input to the choices — based on shared perceptions and meaning — then the group can construct an immediate action plan. If one has a voice in that discussion of the alternatives and the decision on the action plan, one has buy-in to act in accord with the others.

Specify the behavior exactly
Take a ‘before’ measure
Identify the A-B-C pattern
Change the consequences
Pick a new behavior to reward
Change the antecedents
Continue to measure

Since there is so much material to cover, each step its own page. You can download the Management Protocol PDF now as a navigation guide or later after we have made more sense of it.

Navigation Links


  1. Specify the behavior exactly
  2. Take a before measure
  3. Identify the A-B-C pattern


  1. Change the consequences
  2. Pick a new behavior to reward
  3. Change the antecedents
  4. Continue to measure

Examples of SandyJeremy, and Charlie

Next Using Rewards Effectively