Skillful Speech as Leadership Action


In a previous article, Skillful Action, I wrote about skillful thought. A way of thinking that gets us unstuck. We observed that skillful thought involves a capacity to suspend the drive and goal-directed strivings of purposive or intentional thinking. Doing so creates a reflective pause to reappraise the situation. We make space for this pause by setting aside prior beliefs and assumptions. 

Today I address skillful speech, a more considered quality of speech that’s informed by skillful thought. Like skillful thought, it requires that we interrupt habitual ways of talking and choose our words more carefully. It involves finding words and language to more faithfully describe what is seen, felt, thought, and experienced as we navigate skillful thought.

Speech that Reveals its Object

Elsewhere, I reviewed the principles of “right” speech, which have more to do with what is good, right, and proper in speech practices (normative issues). Here I wish to describe a skillfulness in speech that expresses and produces practical wisdom. It is “adumbrational” speech. Not a familiar word and idea, but as you’ll see, it’s a distinction with practical relevance.

Adumbrational speech refers to a kind of speaking that reports and describes what is seen and revealed upon closer examination of a situation. It foreshadows a wholeness that emerges in the ongoing process of observation. What is distinctive about it is that it bears witness to the fact that we shall never have the whole of what we are observing all at once, as a completed thing.

An example of adumbrational speech may be appropriate: You and I have entered an attitude of mindful thinking that reflects upon a recent experience. We’re now jointly involved in the here-and-now inquiry into an initiative that’s gone awry. It’s a new service offering, which seems well-conceived, based upon thoughtful research and innovative design. But it’s not selling.

We’ve suspended the urgent imperatives to boost revenue and obtain endorsements. Thought and action driven by these motives have not worked. We then notice that it’s been this “must-do-it-now” urgency that has narrowed our focus, intensified our effort, and increased our frustration. It’s now obvious that we must examine our experience to learn from it.

So, we gather the key group of actors. They talk about what they did, how they did it, and how they felt in the moment and afterwards. They describe where and how their interaction and message seemed to miss the mark: “Clients welcomed conversation, but I’m not sure their interest was ever really piqued as we had hoped. It was most evident in their nonverbal behavior.”

“What was it?” asked another member of the group. “They went quiet, and I don’t think we knew what to do except to keep talking. We did not inquire enough about what was happening. For example, we might have simply asked them is this service seems like it would be beneficial to them.” We thereby began noticing how we were not voicing and using our observations effectively.

This dialogue proceeded. Observations, impressions, and even working hypotheses began to arise. We resisted a rush to judgment. Instead, we continued sharing experiences, three separate instances in which we took our message to a client. Each failed effort was processed, and we identified several questions that we thought worthy of discussing with these clients or in similar situations. 

Adumbrational speech is the stream of separate but interrelated observations and felt reactions that arise as we focus on a common object, the client meeting. It’s spontaneous, and at times may seem redundant, but then it surprises us by revealing a nuance not seen before. It helps that we believe that by gathering and talking in this way, letting the conversation breathe, something helpful will arise. 

This is a simple example of skillful speech. It requires an attitude of mindful attention and curiosity. It seeks to see and describe the salient experience – not trying to solve it, but to understand it. By letting go of our need to control the outcome, and by being patient with our efforts to find the words that best describe our experience, a more vivid picture of the situation emerges. 

A leader’s job is to facilitate this shift in attitude, and then sustain it long enough to allow a thorough examination of the situation, and a patient expression of what was experienced.