Surprise! Language doesn't have to make sense to be effective

Recently I read a very good book by Amy Herman called Visual Intelligence. In the end, however, I thought her comments on effective communication should have been defined better. Her advice is very good when the purpose of language is to have information jump from one person to another. But that's not the only purpose of language. There are other roles for language to play, and other ways to use it brilliantly.

Surprise! A burst of lavender doesn't make sense but it does activate your senses.

While it is useful to be preoccupied with making sense (which means taking sensory information and understanding it as having meaning), it is less useful to be preoccupied with having your words make sense. Here are three times when you might be brilliantly effective by being less clear and sensible:

  1. Your primary purpose is to build a connection. If this is true, your language needs to mostly mirror the style and strategies of the person or people with whom you are speaking. This is especially true when you are conveying information that challenges their beliefs or frames. Because you will be communicating  two things at once (that you connect, and that you disagree), your language will not always be as clear and sensible as you would like.
  2. Your primary purpose is to build a feeling. This isn't just likely when you are motivating a big room; it's actually more likely when you are speaking privately with one person. You may need to change their feeling (in NLP terms, their state) before you offer any information you want them to remember.  Think of it this way: if someone gives you information when you're angry, the easiest way to recall that information will be to get angry again. If you want to convey information, you probably don't want the other person to have to recall being angry every time they think of the information. The easiest way to avoid this is to change the feeling before you introduce the information.
  3. Your primary purpose is to explore. We use language because it allows us to explore new territory in remarkably efficient ways (no travel, no expense, and not much terror). If your language is very clear, it's because you're not trying to say anything new. When you want to use words to explore, you'll sacrifice some clarity because you'll be on unfamiliar ground and you won't yet be sure what you're perceiving around you.
  4. Your primary purpose is to surprise. Surprise is under-rated. Although we talk about it in terms like "surprise and delight," we focus mostly on the delight. Surprises are uncomfortable. They create a full stop, and then a sense of unfamiliarity. This is very helpful when the familiar pattern is no longer a useful pattern, whether it is a pattern of thought, communication or behaviour. You can shock someone with clarity, but the result will be confusion, not immediate clarity. "Seeing the light" is a metaphor. Think about it. What happens when you look into a light? You're momentarily blinded by it. That's why the best way to surprise someone is often with a bit of nonsense. It gives their eyes time to adjust before they take a closer look at what you are communicating.
I started each of these sentences with the same three words: your primary purpose. There is no good use of language that does not begin with knowing what you want to do with it. Once you know, language is a surprisingly flexible and resilient system for making connections and for making sense.


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