Changing our language, changing our minds

I delivered a lightning keynote at the StarEast conference in May 2019. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s formatted as a 5-minute pitch on any topic you choose.

I intentionally went into it without a predetermined talk of our team’s slides. I wanted to see what might inspire me before or during the conference. Unfortunately, I waited until the day before the keynote to decide what I would talk about and I’m sort of glad I did.

My Observation

Mary Thorn and I shared 3 – ½ day workshops at the conference. And during those sessions, and in the hallways, I noticed a trend.

I was listening carefully to people’s questions, the discussions, the stories, and the challenges. And one pattern emerged that caught my attention. The language was very much around –

  • Us vs. The. Or Me vs. Them
  • I’m right and they’re wrong
  • They’re not supporting us
  • They’re not doing enough
  • I know what to do, but no one else is helping…

And “they” in these cases were often developers (remember it’s a testing conference) or management or leadership. Or “they” also referred to stakeholders and customers.


As I thought about my observations, I realized something. Something I’ve always known, but it came back to me full force.

Our language really matters! No, you don’t understand… It REALLY MATTERS!

  • it influences our thinking, our postures, our models
  • it establishes or changes our mindset
  • it sets a tone around us; defining our ecosystem, and our culture

The point is, our language sets the stage for what we experience. That is, we’re part of our ecosystem and culture. We’re not victims, we’re contributors.


From 2009 – 2012 I worked at a company called iContact. If you follow my writings, you’ve heard me mention it a time or two 😉

During that time, I was a senior engineering leader. Along my journey, I discovered that my agile teams were still siloed in their thinking and behavior. Upon reflection, I realized that my own behavior may have been contributing to it.

I often referred to roles in my day-to-day communication. Developer this…and tester that…and architect this. In order to change my language, I started to charge myself 5-dollars every time I used a silo-based role versus talk about “us,” “we” and the “teams.”

To be honest, it cost me quite a lot of money. But I do think it changed the tenor of the organization, the culture, and our overall behaviors.

Point being, I re-learned that my (our) language matters a great deal in “setting the culture…”

Wrapping Up

What I was trying to do in my lightening keynote is inspire the attendees to reflect on the part they’re playing in the very things they’re complaining about.

Inspire them to shift their language to be more inclusive of:

  • We and Us and Team
  • How they partner and work together without hierarchical thinking
  • How they consider collaboration and networking over silos and hand-offs
  • How they focus on team-based problem solving over complaining about them
  • How they pair and swarm around our work

In other words, how do they shift their words to create a shared mindset of respect, collaboration, and a cross-functional focus on getting stuff done.

I wonder if anyone in the audience was changed in some way…


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