The Shibboleth Project

While a consultant at Arthur Andersen & Co in New York City I was assigned to a high-pressure project for a Wall Street firm. We were proud to work at Arthur Andersen because this was way-back-when, before Enron, before helping investment banks was cause for abject ethical concern, and before the building we worked in was destroyed by hijacked airliners. It was the summer of 1985 when I was old enough to think I understood business and too young to notice that I didn’t.

We worked long hours in cramped quarters implementing mainframe software for an innovative financial product. One of the first derivatives, come to think of it. The bank’s internal developers had fallen woefully behind schedule and AA&Co was called in to rescue the project. Every day of delay, we were assured, was millions lost to the bank. Too many delays and the market would be taken by some other bank.

Threescore and eight “Arthur Androids” pulled from “the beach” in every office around the continent instantly gelled as a team and, as in any tribe, we quickly fell into the lazy habit of using buzzwords and (more…)

Another Reason to Avoid Jargon



Another good reason to avoid jargon, shibboleths, and technical terms with colleagues and prospects. It makes you sound untrustworthy, even criminal. Listeners naturally wonder, “What are you hiding behind those obscure references, technical terms, and acronyms?” For good reason.


The word jargon originally meant unintelligible noises resembling speech, like the twittering of birds. But early on, jargon became the name of the peculiar speech used by criminal groups.

–Professor Heller-Roazen
Learn to Talk in Beggars’ Cant
The New York Times


See also, Misunderstood Jargon, on this blog.



Werner Erhard on enlightenment, context, and leadership



Werner ErhardThis transcript of a conversation between theologians and est founder Werner Erhard may be incomprehensible to anyone not trained in ontological coaching. For those of us who are, Werner provides a thrilling demonstration of how to apply coaching distinctions. In this excerpt, Werner articulates one of the fundamental insights executive coaches bring to bear on their clients’ issues.

Interviewer: I want to know what problems you see, and how those changes are going to contribute to the relationship between you and your underlings in the organization.
Werner Erhard: I’m not making an issue of the words you use. I’m making the system from which the words are derived the problem. Given the system, I can’t answer the question. You see, it’s not simply the words you’re using that are the problem.

What I want to convey to you is this: In the assumptions from which you are asking the question, you allow for no truthful answer to the question. The words you use reflect your assumptions accurately, and given your assumptions, there’s no solution to the problem. One cannot solve the problem in the system you are using. In fact, that system is the problem.

Now, I’m going to answer your question, because, you know, I came here and agreed to do that, but I want to tell you the truth before I answer the question. So I’m telling you that my answer will make no sense if you listen to the answer in that system from which you asked the question.

The answer is that the organization has for several years been shifting away from a structure that has a central place or a top place from which decisions are made and passed on. We always tried not to operate that way, and over the years we’ve become more and more successful at not operating that way. The structure of just about any ordinary organization, however, is that way.

–Werner Erhard
in The Network Review
September 1983



See also, Never say, “It’s Just Semantics” on this blog.



Never say, “It’s Just Semantics.”

Lera Boroditsky

Languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses. Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions.

Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.

— Lera Boroditsky, Ph.D.
Stanford University


See also this Wall Street Journal article by Dr. Boroditsky.


See it at Amazon!

…literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.” Literates saw optical illusions; illiterates sometimes didn’t. Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.” [Work by Aleksandr R. Luria]

Illiterates also resisted giving definitions of words and refused to make logical inferences about hypothetical situations. … Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. [Work by Walter J. Ong]

— Caleb Crain
Twilight of the Books in
The New Yorker 2007 12 24

Conversations that Make a Difference

.PDF of 12 Step Program for conducting a difficult, stressful, or frightening conversation
12 Step Program for conducting a difficult, stressful, or frightening conversation

Here is my 12 Step Program for conducting a difficult, stressful, or frightening conversation in a way that will create new possibilities for relationship and action.

  1. Get yourself centered.
  2. Make sure the other person is willing to talk. Use my Conversation Contract™.
  3. Help the other person feel safe. “We’re friends and colleagues now and we’ll still be friends and colleagues after this conversation.” Easy on the relationship, rigorous on the topic.
  4. Get a firm agreement on facts before delving into opinions. Be conscientious about distinguishing facts from opinions. “The client reported several misspellings in the report,” is a fact. “Your work is sloppy,” is an opinion.
  5. Remember, seek first to understand, then to be understood, is Covey’s fifth habit.
    Listen before you speak. Encouraging the other person to talk first is also a way to get his or her concerns out of his or her head to make room in there for what you have to say.
    Ask questions to clarify how it looks to him or her. Stop behaving as though you know what they think; be genuinely curious.
    Repeat key points back to him or her to show that you are listening and to verify that you have heard correctly. You do not need to agree with the person’s point of view, but it is helpful to let him or her know you understand and you accept that he or she sees that way right now.
  6. Take responsibility for your own reactions.
    It is not responsible to assert, “You are forcing me to double-check all of your reports.” It is more useful to explain, “When I hear a client complain I feel obligated to double-check all of your reports.” See the difference? The first is the voice of a victim making an accusation, one who has reached a firm conclusion about the location of the problem: it’s the other guy. The second is a person making a choice on limited information, one who is eager to consider alternatives.

    The simple shortcut from victim to choice is to start sentences with “I” rather than “you.”

  7. Establish the level of trust: sincerity, capacity, competence, consistency, and care. “I know that you can see when a project is suffering from scope creep and that you will let me know about it.”
  8. Explicitly agree on the shared commitment or values e.g., “We both want to preserve the company’s reputation with clients and develop the next generation of project managers”
  9. Point-out what you see as missing or not working. Reach an agreement on the facts of the situation and its threat to our shared commitment.
  10. Explore and create together possible actions to move closer to circumstances consistent with your shared values. Don’t get stuck on your favorite course of action. It is not a solution until both sides take action to make it work.
  11. Make requests and promises.
  12. Establish a structure of accountability for monitoring the agreed actions.

These steps are in sequence, like bricks in a wall. If you are having trouble completing a step, return to the previous step. That is, if you cannot agree on the relevant shared values, talk about trust. If you cannot talk about trust, talk about safety. If you cannot talk about safety, get in touch with your center. Get centered even if you need to take a break and leave the room.

See also, on this blog, step-by-step conversation instructions with video here:
The Conversation Contract.

Good advice from David Brooks via
The New York Times, Kindness is a Skill

See also on this blog, The 3 Rs of Dispute Resolution.

Language & Relationships Make Us Human



Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language According to the social-brain theory, it was this need to understand social dynamics–not the need to find food or navigate terrain–that spurred and rewarded the evolution of bigger and bigger primate brains.

This isn’t idle speculation; Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to (more…)

Awake to human life

Helen Keller

For nearly six years I had no concepts of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactual. … there is not one spark of emotion or rational thought in these distinct, yet corporeal memories. … I was like an unconscious clod of earth. Then, suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge of love, to the usual concepts of nature, of good and evil!


I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life…

–Helen Keller


Speech Acts

Jullio Olalla

…in the field of philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century, there was an enormous revolution. It was called the linguistic revolution, and it was the time when the understanding of language was fundamentally questioned.

Language went from simply being a shared “code” to describe reality to being a force that actually generates or creates reality. How I use offers and promises and requests and tell my “story” actually generates what is possible for me in action. And another part of the revolution was that language was now seen as action, not just words relating to action, but action itself.

When we speak, we act.

–Julio Olalla
Newfield Network