Language and Reality

Language and Reality

A: You put sand on her head.
B: It’s hard to get sand out of hair.
C: That’s not safe.

We have a responsibility to be intentional in how we describe what we see.

sandcryThe way we describe things in language depends first upon our ability to perceive (see, hear, etc.) and second how our language structures meaning. Since it’s essential to communicate clearly in all fields of study, every discipline or trade specifically addresses the way we are talking. Precision in communicating is part of becoming knowledgeable in any field.

Common ways of talking hinder effectiveness in teaching and learning, too. What we think about children can be insightful, for sure, but it can also limit the kinds of things we are noticing, and, more essentially, spark an emotional reaction causing unnecessary barriers to rise. This is especially true when we are addressing sensitive issues such as behavioral difficulties. All of the Protocol work depends upon establishing clarity in language as we work together to construct a strategy to help a child in distress.

Theories of Action

The ladder of inference described by Chris Argyris begins at the bottom in the green oval. Each rung upward shows how one’s theories and beliefs become increasingly distant from the events themselves and then become fixed and resistant to contrary evidence.

If we fail to study how we discuss reality, we may find ourselves continuing obviously ineffective actions. If someone asks us kindly why we do things this way, we might respond by eagerly expressing our beliefs and opinions, even though when we act, we often don’t act the way we believe. The result is what we all have experienced time and time again: we blame the child or parent, we avoid looking at contrary evidence to our judgments, we become resistant or defensive when there is disagreement, and—in spite of the fact that we are half of the problem—we rarely volunteer to change. Chris Argyris says this is simply the way things work.

To be effective in helping others be the best they can be, we have to be cognizant of how we talk about reality. When we discuss our work, we we become wiser and more consistent when we attend to what is actually happening that we can see or hear. Once we agree upon what is happening we can talk about theories and meanings. Conventions in taking about reality, therefore, have to be on the agenda at all times in considering what to do to help the client. We can’t relax into assuming that my beliefs or your beliefs represent real life facts and experiences day by day.

Unless we have clear guides when we discuss what is happening. we can waste a lot of time talking past each other without changing what happens. With an agreement to differentiate facts from opinion and from those facts subsequently focus on finding cooperative agreement, we harness the wisdom of our different perspectives. We build a foundation of productive dialogue and become an inventive, cooperative team.

Three Levels of Inference

Everyone benefits when they participate in an efficient protocol for thinking. Multiple brains working together are the perfect resource when we all know and interact with the same client. We get to benefit from our gift when we are careful to ground our theories and experience in what actually happens and avoid the danger of the reflexive loop. The protocol you are about to encounter continuously requires the managers to distinguish three levels of inference which create three kinds of realities.

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 the different ways we consider those physical realities, they might conclude that the event under discussion has at least a few certainties that group can agree upon. The creation of these agreed, or at least acceptable, conclusions take on a kind of reality, because they are conclusions or shared ways of thinking for those who participated in that discussion that one time.

Others who did not participate in the agreement may differ, but this one group does agree, at least for the moment. For example the group may all agree that  It’s hard to remove sand in your hair. When a co-constructed meaning is established, it becomes normative for that particular group. It has an operational reality; that group of people who agreed can interpret events with shared expectations. Socially constructed agreements build a team view and enhanced communication, with the expectation that these agreements can easily be changed or modified at any time.

Personal Reality — Fortunately, we all have our own judgments, opinions, and beliefs acquired from our life experience. Most people are more than willing to share them, almost automatically, without necessarily having to ponder very much. I think it’s not safe. Opinions contain both richness and rigidity, but who really knows if one opinion is more valid than another? The problem is how to move forward toward mutual action when all that happens is the sharing of opinions.

In a nutshell, the three levels of inference work like this: a particular set of people might agree with the previous paragraph. If they all nodded affirmatively to accept that in order to work together most effectively, we are willing to operate under the mutual assumption that opinions and judgments are unreliable. That agreement is no longer a personal reality but a shared reality, because it guides how the group works. Each member of the group accepts the responsibility to act in accord with that agreement, until the team decides to modify it, based upon events in the physical reality they encounter.

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. When we operate as educators we never really know what goes in the minds of the client. We have to read the clues we have and then figure out what those clues mean. Cory is painting several pictures in row that provide clues to his thinking, so watching this particular tape provides an opportunity to practice distinguishing the three levels.

We have the physical reality of what we see and hear in the recording. We have our own thoughts and opinions about it, but what statements can we make about the what he is doing that we all can agree upon? I invite you to take the plunge. After all, the words above are simply words until one applies the concepts to real events.

I offer a PDF exercise sheet that cooperative groups can fill out together after they watch once, talk about it, and watch again. After you do the work of co-constructing agreement,

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 agree is means or agree upon what to do next becomes real, too, because it is a Socially-constructed Reality for this particular group. You can talk your Personal Reality whenever you wish, but as a basis for action it is unreliable. Whether your opinion is wise or not we don’t really know.

Changing What We Do Takes Time and Diligence

Children are learning; we are learning. 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, too, we’re stuck. Both the managers and the child have to find a path that enhances their lives.

A convention for efficiently creating coordinated action

The management protocol that this section steps you through 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.  I present it here because it has been well tested. It works because it is systematic in its examination of the physical reality of this one unique situation and because this one unique group of people, who know and live with that child, co-construct what to do.

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 choice of action plan, one has buy-in to act in accord with the others.

If the first plan doesn’t change what is happening in a satisfying direction in a week or so, the group changes the plan. The managers act with consistency to see if this specific approach actually works and, if not, change it quickly.

Since there is so much material to cover, each step has its own page. You can download the Behavior Management Protocol Form now as a navigation guide and mental organizer or download it at the end after sampling each piece of the pie.

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 Specify the Behavior