Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim
Keep your agreements with the universe
and the universe will keep its agreements with you.
The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And the habit hardens into character;
So watch the thoughts and its ways with care;
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.
As the shadow follows the body,
As we think, so we become.
—The Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha)
Using Fernando Flores’ Conversation-For-Action Model To Powerfully Live Your Word
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Specific words used in conversations actively empower you being a responsible and accountable adult able to live your word and commitments. Human potential trainings that were initiated in the late 1960’s through the 1970’s and continue today make a significant contribution in helping gain clarity about words in conversations that powerfully structure and support responsible adult interactions.1 Engineer and iconoclastic communication philosopher Fernando Flores pioneered the conscious use of words to help articulate powerful and effective commitments in organizations for several decades, building upon the work of John Austin regarding inventing the world using language in the early 1960’s and later refined by philosopher John Searle in the late 1970’s.2 In the 1980’s Werner Erhard worked with Flores on aspects of language that makes a distinction between ‘speaking that describes being’ from ‘speaking that brings forth being.’ 3 One way of perceiving this crucial distinction is to consider the power in being a spectator, reporter or commentator at a sports event and being an active participant on the field of play. The first describes being as expressed in living and the second inhabits engagement /participation that brings forth being itself, that is, committed actions in life. The work Flores did with Erhard before parting ways was used in a growth training The Forum, later renamed Landmark Education.
As Chile’s minister of finance under Salvador Allende, Flores demonstrated great courage when he was imprisoned for three years after Pinochet’s overthrow of Allende in 1973 and reportedly bears no hate or animosity from the past today. In fact, Flores emerged from jail with a new vision, a new commitment and a new understanding of the fundamental relationship between language and actions, what he terms “speech acts.” Flores does not describe his imprisonment in terms of being a victim, choosing to reframe it as a transformation story of how jail changed his outlook, how he perceived communication, and how truth, building trust and emotional resilience are at the heart of true power.
Flores sees that the action of language emotionally and behaviorally changes everyone, much like a drug, for good or for ill. Just notice how different it feels to think, read or hear, “I love you” in contrast to “I hate you.” He spearheaded the new science of organizational transformation based on the idea that conscious, engaged use of language creates reality. It is worth noting that the ways to manage people in a paradigm of committed actions are not the same as the rules employed to manage material and information processes, and to apply a set of rules in one realm to another realm is likely to be a mistake, unworkable and a recipe for getting into trouble. The commitment paradigm is built on the foundation of pluralism and holism of numerous worlds or sub-worlds evoked by pluralistic cultural traditions, with each set of practices / worlds / sub-worlds offering a different set of possibilities. 4 Flores sees the world operating in three realms: 5
1) What You Know You Know: A self-limiting, self-contained world of people not usually taking on new challenges given they’re unwilling to risk their identities. If everything were seemingly already known in their minds, what would be the point to invite or listen to new information?
2) What You Don’t Know: In this realm of inherent / innate uncertainty, unpredictability and dangerousness, it generally manifests itself as anxiety or boredom and encompasses most things in life, including not knowing about the future, your work, family and life. People unendingly attempt to merge this realm with the first realm of What You Know You Know to assuage, soften and avoid the feelings of everything being up in the air, uncertain, anxious and bored.
3) What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know: Living in this realm entails noticing the ever-present opportunities for transformation, renewal and reinvention, whether in a company or in your own life. In this realm everything is witnessed, observed and seen for just what it is, no longer filtered through information and knowledge, biases and prejudices, distortions and untruths, illusions and lies. Instead, in this realm of freedom from blindness, complacency and arrogance, you speak the language of truth that both risks your current success and builds authentic trust in relationships.
Fernando Flores’ ‘conversation-for-action’ communication model can be summarized as one of making assessments, then making an offer or request, which another is free to accept or decline, and if accepted, a commitment is made to fulfill that promise. In other words, Flores trains people to make assessments, explicit requests and ask for explicit promises to perform a requested action. A grammar of committed action comprising declaring, offering (and accepting or declining them), making requests and promises, asserting and assessing form the backbone commitment vocabulary of a set of ‘speech acts’ that help organizations actualize new systems of productivity and coordination. Organizations thrive by making effective codifying agreements in responsible business conversations.
Flores brilliantly recognized that almost all communication between people consisted of prompts or bids for action and the possibility of consciously creating or constructing tangible change through deliberately giving voice to pragmatic new visions. Flores contribution is to notice the inherent plasticity of language to call forth new transformative possibilities so long as people are willing to change the way they think and converse about it. Flores’ work in recent years is in the realm of consulting to teach and train people to consciously use words to powerfully articulate commitments, provoke true engagement and participation, and invoke enhanced coordination and realization of these commitments. Flores sees that the commitments people create unto themselves have greater strength and are more psychologically compelling than when directions, demands and orders are offered by someone else. Value is not conveyed through hard work, mission statements or interpretations, but rather by a compelling story that creates a new possibility, one that challenges complacency and galvanizes the adventure of playing on a larger playing field for much bigger stakes and rewards. It takes risking the loss of an old identity through transforming your current reality into a larger, constructive and exhilarating one in this moment.
Key words that communicate responsibility and can empower the communicators to collaborate in effective honest conversations for transformation are priceless. This is particularly important given Flores’ conviction that the companies that thrive will emphasize convenience and a quick turnover time in offering supreme care to their customers, which usually translates into outstanding listening skills and coordination. A set of distinctions live in the language we use. Conversations for change proceed using offers, requests and committed promises, and are augmented by declarations, assertions and assessments. Five kinds of linguistic actions are available in Flores’ conversations for change model: 6
1) Requests / Requesting: ‘Requests’ are actions taken in enlisting the assistance of another in satisfying some underlying concern you have. In making an offer, prompt or bid, it is clear that you will fulfill certain conditions if the other person accepts. In making a request, you are asking another to do the very same. Sending a request is not a commitment without the performer’s promise. Requests always have a “for sake of” or rationale for making the request that provide context and buy-in. In making a request, I take responsibility for the other’s listening, that is, I aim to be a fine communicator and not just a fine listener in taking responsibility for how people listen to me and to communicate in such a way that the message I want to convey lands inside the listener. A request is not giving instructions, demanding, ordering, expecting or making another responsible. A request is neither telling another what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, nor talking ‘to’ or ‘at’ another. An example of an explicit direct request is, “Please use the vacuum on the downstairs this afternoon given our dinner guests are arriving before 6 PM.”
2) Declarations / Declaring: Declarations are utterances in which one who has the social authority to do so brings something into being that was not there before. For example, “I sign up to help clean up the house before guests arrive on Friday.” Successful declarations require a constituency to follow them. Declarations are self-evident, need no support or evidence, reasons why, explanations or proof, and have the power to effect and shape our lives when we follow through in consistent behavior. For Flore, good leadership is seen with declaring into the concerns of the people who want to follow.
3) Promises / Promising: A promise is what is spoken to indicate your signing up for a commitment to fulfill what someone else has requested. It is distinguished from an offer, which is a conditional promise used to build a new relationship within a company that can be accepted or declined. When an offer is accepted, the offer is now a committed promise. For example, “I will vacuum the downstairs this afternoon before our guests arrive at 6 PM.” Often promises are lukewarm, not sticking your neck out and playing small, instead of red hot, aiming high and playing large.
4) Assertions / Asserting: An assertion is a statement you make for which you are willing to provide supportive evidence and lives in the past. Assertions are speech acts that describe the world in which evidence is provided to assess them as either facts that are true or lies that are intentionally false. Thus, a speaker asserts or reports pertinent facts addressing the concerns at hand. Giving supported assertions tends to build confidence in our judgments and in our ability to take on reliable and consistent coordination. 4 For example, you might assert, “I have been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes” and thereafter be willing to show the lab work scores that support this finding. What is asserted live for us as facts that are either true or false as apart of a societal social contract for establishing common values, often using quantitative measurements. Similarly, interpretations offer your point-of-view, slant, spin and perspective on a given communication, issue or behavior. Interpretations are vulnerable for being wildly different and equally for being quite revealing of the presence of good judgment and discernment, or its lack.
5) Assessments / Assessing: Assessments are a value judgment you make about the world in the interest of taking some action. For example, in the interest of running the vacuum, I may make the assessment, “The kids won’t get in your way since I’m taking them to karate this afternoon.” Assessments are neither facts nor truth, only an opinion in the interest in taking an action, and require giving a response, whether accepting to answer or declining to answer. Few hard assertions occur in business transactions and people typically operate on assessments they hold with no assertions or requests. One key is to recognize and stop producing interpretations / opinions and stating desires that don’t evoke actions; rather make functional requests. Without conveying emotional investment with the energy you put in and showing what excites you, what type of commitment will you likely get? How you communicate is likely to be more influential than the words you use. Actions showing sincerity, competence and care build trust. 4
In Flores’ model strong opinions are voiced in public and honest assessments are made in clear view of colleagues. Assessments are made regularly since people will attempt to manipulate the system by misusing assessments to diminish the power of others and enhance their own power. Flores offers a script for making assessments that he rigorously enforces, refusing to let anyone change the script to resist change, look good or dodge receiving honest feedback. The assessor states the name of the one being assessed and proceeds to give a positive or negative assessment. The one being assessed then states the name of the assessor and says, “Thank you for your assessment. I appreciate your sincerity. I would like to have further discussions with you about this topic.” The assessor says, “Thank you” and the person being assessed says, “You’re welcome.” All of this is being a warrior with great compassion and patience in revealing people’s biases, self-deceptions and self-limitations they’re unaware of. 5
Commitments are seen in Flores’ transformational model as bold promises, ones that there is every intention of fulfilling. For Flores commitments are built by compelling stories or conversations for positive change, that is, a big story of a transformed reality coupled with a promise of an action plan. For Flores, once an agreement is reached between what the provider is offering and what the customer is wanting, a commitment is negotiated and forged that includes the conditions of satisfaction and always includes a time of completion.
Being more specific in regard to Flores’ model of making an offer, making requests, negotiating and accepting a request, and creating a commitment for action, it is forwarded that four options are ever available in the process of making a request and negotiating a commitment, along with three components for entering into a commitment. In responding to a request, the receiver of the request can respond with agreement in saying, “Yes,” decline the request in saying, “No,” make a “counter-offer” or “postpone” giving an reply to further think or gather additional information and provide a time when a response will be forthcoming. These four options are central to negotiating an agreement on a state of commitment between two parties and prevent a rupture of the sincere commitment between parties. 4
Thus, a bid or offer constitutes a possible agreement that, once agreed upon, becomes a promise that, in turn, can become a bold promise or commitment. It seems there are three critical components for what makes a commitment or a strong agreement: 1) Make a public statement of intention (for example, “I will go to the market and pick up food for dinner”); 2) Give a time and a date for doing this intention in action, for beginning and for completing it, possibly with updates given changing conditions (for example, “I plan to go to the market after I finish work at 5 PM today and be home by 6 PM”); and 3) Follow through in taking necessary actions in actually doing what you said you would do (“Here is the food I purchased for dinner tonight.”). The power of this commitment model is that without all three elements, you do not have a commitment. Keeping your agreements and commitments are essential signs of honesty, integrity, authenticity, trustworthiness and sincerity. A joke distinguishes a contribution from a commitment: it’s as simple as bacon and eggs-the chicken makes a contribution; the pig makes a commitment. True relationships are built on honoring and living your commitments.
One additional speech act this writer may suggest is the creation of policies. Stating your ‘policy,’ such as being willing to take health insurance for professional services, not allowing smoking, or purely drinking non-alcoholic beverages, is similar to declarations because they are self-evident and do not broach argument or debate. State your policy in any area of life and it is a clear communication for how you conduct your life, relationships and business. Policies provide clear signposts that point to core values, principles and guiding visions. Policies serve as invitations to notice what common ground can be found, that is, what shared resonance or congruence is present in this relationship. Constant vigilance, patience and silence in waiting out the questioner and debater serve as one’s great protection.
Flores offers an atom of work portraying the work cycle using four steps in his transformational communication model. Most businesses begin with a great declaration known as a business plan and the challenge for organizations is to understand and meet the unique concerns and need of their prospective customers. The atom of work starts in preparation (context setting) with the provider making an offer or the customer making a request. Second comes negotiation (assessment of value) in which the provider agrees to the customer’s request or the customer agrees to the provider’s offer, given the customer assessing the value of what the provider will provide. At this point there is an agreement so long as there is an intersection of customer and provider concerns and a commitment is made that includes the conditions of satisfaction and a completion time. Thirdly, the provider does the promised performance by delivering a product and/or service and a declaration of completion. The fourth step occurs when the customer assesses satisfaction with the performance and states whether or not they are satisfied.
In this atom of work a breakdown is declared by either party when it is concluded by either that the promise cannot be kept for some reason. At this juncture there needs to be a declaration of what actions are necessary to be taken and someone has to be found to take responsibility for correcting the breakdown. Breakdowns are perceived as opportunities to improve, create breakthroughs and build trust. When one is out of integrity in a commitment, it is essential to apologize, offer compensation for the inconvenience, and be open to a new request. All of these steps are crucial to help maintain the customer relationship. Even having done all these steps, one’s reputation may well be hurt and suffer a blemish. 7 Keeping your agreements and commitments are the essential signs of honesty, integrity, authenticity, trustworthiness and sincerity, all nearly synonymous perspectives or slices into the identical pie.
Breakdowns in actions using Flores’ speech acts usually result from what authors Budd and Rothstein call “linguistic viruses” that attack relationships, change the structures of the people in them, cause difficult moods, dissatisfaction and poor health. These authors propose the following ten linguistic viruses: 1) Not making requests; 2) Living with excommunicated expectations; 3) Making unclear requests; 4) Not observing the mood of your requests; 5) Promising even when you aren’t clear what was requested; 6) Not declining requests; 7) Breaking promises without taking care: undermining trust; 8) Treating assessments as facts; 9) Making assessments without rigorous grounding; and 10) Making fantasy affirmations and declarations. 8 So-called waste in the context of commitment and relationships can be perceived as encompassing mistrust, incompetence for listening, and all else that violates the capacity to maintain relationships. 4 Speech acts can exist powerfully in a context of history making.
Authors Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus discuss “history making” and recognize three archetypes of effective history makers. They offer the illustration of history making with the American President John F. Kennedy’s aim in the early 1960’s to reframe a historical sense of the American people by instituting a pioneering space-race with the Soviet Union to land a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade, and further linking it to a technical engineering education. Moreover, these authors propose three prime methods of history making in the form of articulation, reconfiguration, and cross-appropriation. Articulation, the most familiar kind of style change, occurs when a style is given a sharper focus and makes what is implicit explicit, for example many families exhibit strong caring styles with deep concern for a strong work ethic, family loyalty, the best education possible and so on by enrolling their children into structured activities that support these values. Reconfiguration, a more substantial way for a style to change, is less frequently seen in everyday life compared with articulation, and can be most easily identified in large-scale changes, such as the shift from using animals for transportation and power to all the modern varieties of machine technology. Cross-appropriation is a third form of style change when one social world takes over from another social world a practice it could not generate on its own but finds most useful. For example, business use of cell phones has been duly appropriated by the family to meet its needs, while the feminist movement cross-appropriated a variety of masculine practices that changed the styles by which males and females perceive gender identity.
Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus have identified three universal patterns or archetypes that are effective history makers, that is, changing the way we deal and understand ourselves and objects: the entrepreneur, the social activist, and the cultural articulator. The entrepreneur is described as seizing upon disharmony to create cultural change, with the example of Steve Jobs at Apple and his creative computer software innovations, such as the personal computer that changed how people efficiently organized things. More recently, Jobs and Apple introduced iTunes that changed the way people purchase and consume music, videos and movies. The social activist is seen as maximizing engagement within the public arena, giving the example of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in building awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol. Lastly, the cultural articulator is perceived in reframing societal issues by conversing about virtue in a new fashion, citing the illustration of Martin Luther King, Jr. in advancing the cause of racial equality by articulating the Judeo-Christian value of agape or selfless commitment to the well being of others in society. Each of these archetypes reveals a disharmony, persistently investigates all its permutations, and identifies a workable and acceptable way of helping address and resolves it. 9
Feedback in a conversation that effectively empowers the listener with an acceptance of personal responsibility, accountability and authority, takes the verbal forms of giving ‘acknowledgment’ and ‘affirmation’ as well as offering ‘appreciation’ and ‘gratitude.’
1. Acknowledgement and affirmation give verbal recognition of one’s intentions and actions as well as the person doing them: ‘Acknowledgement’ offers another recognition in words for what intentions and actions are taken as well as for the person taking them. Feedback in the form of an acknowledgement can help provide the social lubricant to a well-functioning relationship by letting the receiver of this feedback know that they are heard and seen for all they are intending and doing. For example, you acknowledge your partner’s intention and efforts to clear their piles from the living room, or you acknowledge your client’s openness to learn, grow and adapt in your professional consulting relationship. Ultimately, one is known by doing this.
Similar to acknowledgment is an ‘affirmation,’ that is, a positive, present tense statement about some action, attitude or intention in addition to the person doing that. Affirmations are literally affirming a vision and inner reality that may or may not be physically present or manifest yet. For illustration, you affirm a manager for their shift of attitude, words and actions toward their employees in being more approachable, user-friendly and supportive. If the affirmation is not yet manifest, it acts as a present beacon to help create or make that affirmed vision come into reality. For example, you offer an affirmation to a struggling student that he or she can make progress with improving their study skills, test scores and getting homework completed on time. Affirmations are sometimes considered a high form of prayer given that you are affirming a reality for some good, even the highest and best of all concerned, and to be sourced in having the courage, strength and fortitude for helping bring it into creation. Authentic acknowledgment and affirmation provide active support for keeping morale high and growing healthy relationships.
2. Appreciation and gratitude give a human, warm and supportive voice to being pleased, thankful and grateful for the actions taken, whether successful or not, and the person doing them. Most likely the most empowering form of feedback is genuine appreciation and gratitude, especially given that such support is in relatively short supply on this planet: ‘Appreciation’ is noticing and voicing kind support of someone’s intention, efforts and results. With nearly anyone in almost any situation, you can find one or more observable actions and attitudes that you can honestly offer appreciation. Take a spouse who is a busy doer and tends to overlook nurturance and affection in the relationship. You look for the opportunity to catch your spouse giving a hug or making a special effort on your behalf, and soon thereafter informing them how much you are pleased with them and what they give. The cost is fairly minimal; the impact is usually maximal.
‘Gratitude’ is offering thankfulness to another over what that person gives. Even more to the core, gratitude is most moving and meaningful when it is freely given because of qualities the person brings based on several specific observable behaviors. For illustration, you offer heartfelt gratitude to your spouse specifically for washing the dishes after a particularly long workday. Better, you mention this and picking up the living room and making dinner in sharing deep thanks for being such a considerate, supportive mate. Appreciation and gratitude are forms of positive reinforcement that help a receiver of a communication feel seen, heard, felt, valued and known.
1. Deep thanks is warmly extended to the visionary originators of sensitivity, growth and human potential trainings that have impacted and contributed so much to the quality of this author’s life and understanding in action over the years. Influences in formulating this paper include Werner Erhard (aka, Jack Rosenberg) who founded est which later morphed into Landmark as well as the Mastery training; John Hanley who founded Lifespring; Steward Emery who founded Actualizations; and Bob Trask who founded ARAS Foundation, among others.
2. Austin, J. L. (1962, 1975)) (Urmson, J. O. & Sbisa Marina, Eds.) How to do things with words. Second Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._L._Austin#How_to_Do_Things_With_Words; Searle, J. (1979) Expression and meaning. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Flores , 2011.
4. Davis, C. (1998) “Listening, language and action”, LSE strategy & complexity seminar. London, United Kingdom: London School of Economics and Political Science, November, 1998. http://www.stratam.com/assets/articles/Listening_Language_Action.pdf.
5. Rubin, H., (1999) “The power of words”, Fast Company, January 1999, Issue 21, 142-151. http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/21/flores.html?page=0%2C0
6. Peta, (2000) “The effect of communication – Fernando Flores”, New Age, December 2000, 17 (9); Brothers, C. (2005) Language and the pursuit of happiness. Naples, Florida: New Possibilities Press, 153-266.
7. Walden, D. (1997) “Using the methods of Fernando Flores: An interview of Jack Reilly”, Center for Quality of Management Journal, Spring 1997, 6 (1), 15-19.
8. Budd, M. & Rothstein, L. (2000) You are what you say. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group / Random House, Inc., 141-152.
9. Spinosa, C, Flores, F. & Dreyfus, H. L., (1997) Disclosing new worlds: Entrepreneurship, democratic action, and the cultivation of solidarity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press; and Fisher, L. M. (2009), “Fernando Flores wants to make you an offer”, Strategy + Business, Winter 2009, Issue 57; http://www.strategy-business.com/article/09406?pg=all.
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