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.

sandcryI often introduce a subject by addressing the way we talk, for the words we use can constrain what we see and muddy communication. All fields of study address clarity of meaning in order to become more precise in the pursuit of understanding, Many call it learning an academic language because agreement is essential in academic research and application.

Education in all fields always addresses precision in meaning Common terms fail when ideas become more complex. 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 from others that may not help. This is especially true when it comes to sensitive issues such as behavioral difficulties. We start by establishing clarity in language in order to create a group strategy to help a child in distress.

Theories of Action

ladderThe ladder of inference described by Chris Argyris begins at the bottom in the green oval. Each rung upward shows how our theories and beliefs become increasingly distant from the events themselves. If we don’t distinguish these steps, we may find ourselves trapped and continue obviously ineffective actions while defending ourselves by even more firmly held beliefs. The result is usually blaming others for the failures, rather than searching for ways we can change. If someone asks us kindly why we do things this way, we usually respond by talking about our beliefs about the world, even though when we act, we often do so as a reflex. Often the reflex may be quite different than our beliefs. Chris Argyris says this is simply the way things work.

To get around this problem we have to be cognizant of how we talk about reality, what is happening actually that we can see or hear.  Then we can talk about our theories and meanings. Clarity in language has to be the first item on the agenda in deciding what to do. We can’t just assume that your beliefs or my beliefs, or her intentions and our intentions represent observable facts and shared experience.

Unless we are careful 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 focus on finding cooperative agreement, we can more readily build upon our different perspectives and create genuine, creative dialogue.

Three Levels of Inference

Everyone benefits when they participate in an efficient protocol for thinking. When multiple brains work together we can talk about our theories and practices and stay out of the reflexive loop. That means, however, we have to constantly be able to distinguish three levels of inference in what we are saying, so we can quickly communicate and be more creative.

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. That group of people can then undertake simultaneous actions, look at the same things, and interpret events with a shared lens. The goal is to build a team view which makes meaning of the data and pursues agreement, for now. The team intentionally co-constructs a meaning based on what they know of the physical reality as they understand it in this one time and place.

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 opinion is more valid than another? How can we open honest dialogue when we argue opinons?

To say this another way: a group might all agree that opinions and judgments are unreliable. If they all nodded affirmatively, their agreement constitutes a shared, socially-constructed reality that is no longer a personal reality. It becomes real and able to change how the group works, because that agreement creates a shared operational assumption. That group can then act together on that assumption, until they decide to change it.

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 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