Why language is the best source of insights

It’s not what we say, it’s how we say it

Have you ever wondered how someone would think if they had no language? How would they conceptualise the world around them and how they think beyond the world around them? If you Google it, you’ll learn that there is a lot of conjecture about this, but what is generally accepted is that how we think and what we think is intrinsically related to language.

Oscar Wilde saw the truth of this when he said “There is no mode of action, no form of emotion, that we do not share with the lower animals. It is only by language that we rise above them, or above each other – by language, which is the parent, and not the child, of thought.”

More formally, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that “the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience.” In other words, our language influences our thoughts. Just as importantly, we can deduce from this that our thoughts are revealed by our language. Not just what we say but how we say it.

This is, of course, stating the obvious. But to put this in practice, if I ask a person to rate the statement ‘I feel well supported by my manager’ on an agreement scale, we must interpret their response from MY use language. I don’t know how they interpret it.

If I instead ask someone to share their thoughts about their manager in their own language, I can deduce a great deal more.

Here is an actual quote from a recent Employee Listening study we conducted for a client to demonstrate this:

“My manager has been so supportive of me since I started. Taken her time to provide advice and coaching on all aspects of the role and listen to what I have to say.”

1. I can read what they say and understand it – the manager has provided advice and support

2. I can sense their emotion about this topic – very positive

3. I can deduce how they think about their manager – respectful, praiseworthy

4. I can understand how they perceive their manager – encouraging, patient, kindly

The best thing is that our brains are encoded to understand this type of information that can be embedded in our use language – you can implicitly sense this when you read the comment.

That’s why conversational engagement, rather than ratings, is a superior way of engaging with employees. It is not just what they say but how they say it that is important.

Finally, when managers read feedback like this themselves, it has an impact beyond reading a dry and empty statement of someone else’s design, thus completing the virtuous circle of feedback and listening.