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Change Work May 2016

Mind your language!

There's been a lot of discussion in the media lately about the testing of language skills and knowledge in schools. Much fun has ensued with examples of questions, supposedly used in tests for very young children, being published to demonstrate that most adults couldn't answer them! Not surprising really. Apart from the examples being chosen especially to catch us out, it's also true that the curriculum has changed out of all recognition so children are being taught topics we never were.

"What are modal verbs" was the question that irked me enough to prompt me to look it up. Wikipedia says:

"A modal verb (also modal, modal auxiliary verb, or modal auxiliary) is a type of verb that is used to indicate modality that is, likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation. Examples include the English verbs can/could, may/might, must, will/would, and shall/should."

As soon as I saw this definition I realised that I already knew it, not from English lessons but from NLP Practitioner training. There we learnt about "modal operators of necessity" and "modal operators of possibility". And even though I'd forgotten the labels, I still use the concepts in coaching work because they are so powerful.

Words and phrases that convey necessity act to eliminate or restrict choice. So a client might say, "I must find a new job", which immediately rules out any other possible solution to the underlying problem. It also implies a compulsion or a rule imposed by some other agency than themselves. It's stated as a fact, but of course it's usually no such thing.

Modal operators of possibility describe a person's ability or willingness to do something, for example, "I could get another job", or, "I can't decide what to do."

There's a branch of NLP that deliberately uses vague, illogical language in coaching and therapy where it has an hypnotic effect. This can help to change behaviours without the subject even being aware of quite what's happened. For countering the self-limiting effects of modal operators though, it's usually best to take the contrasting, "meta", approach that employs very precise language that challenges the underlying beliefs.

For example, in a statement of necessity such as "I should confront my boss about this", you might ask, "What would happen if you didn't do that?" The other person then starts to think through an alternative course of action. How does that help? Well, the fact that you're discussing the situation at all probably indicates that they don't want to do the thing that they "must" do - so they're stuck. The question you ask frees them to go in a different direction.

Statements about possibility, or more often the impossibility of doing something, are also approached with precise questions. When someone says, "I can't get this done on time" they reveal a belief about their capabilities that may be preventing them from taking any action at all. Asking, "What specifically is stopping you?" opens an internal dialogue that might allow them to see that the belief is false, or to realise that there are other ways of achieving the result they want.

For most of us, this sort of precise questioning isn't the way we'd respond to another person's problem. Do you offer advice, tell them what you would do in their place? If your troubled friend tells you that they can't do something, are you tempted to tell them what they should do? And would that be a restatement in different words of the very thing they say they're incapable of? Introducing an element of necessity into the situation they're already struggling with doesn't usually make it any easier!

So many of our problems arise out of our self-limiting beliefs, and when we use modal operators of necessity and possibility we give them the appearance of real, physical limitations. As a helper, you can easily be drawn into addressing the apparent problem that a friend or colleague has shared with you. When you hear those operators though, you can be sure that the actual problem, and its solution, resides inside them, not in the outside world.

Now I'm glad that the fuss over school tests has reminded me of all this. It reinforces what many people have said about measuring academic progress: knowing how to use language is much more important than remembering the names of its components!