Issue #34

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How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work:
Seven Languages for Transformation

by Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey

$24.95 cloth
241 pages


Ph: 415-296-8810

Leaders in business, medicine, education, and countless other professions have been striving to “revolutionize” their industries for decades. Some pay consulting firms millions of dollars to design strategic plans and breakthrough solutions. Plans are created. They are ratified by corporate leadership. Yet more often than not very little significant change actually occurs. Individually, we make countless sincere pledges to ourselves and to others to change in some important way. We may even temporarily accomplish the change, but we commonly return to status quo.

In How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey explain that most individuals and organizations are actually immune to deep and lasting change in spite of their best intentions to the contrary. If we want a more adequate understanding of the prospect of change, Kegan and Lahey suggest, we first need a better way of seeing into our own powerful inclination NOT to change.

Considering every workplace as a language community, Kegan and Lahey show us how poorly served are our aspirations for change by the ordinary language forms we use to talk with others and to think things through in our own heads. By actively engaging the reader in an illuminating series of personal explorations and case studies they introduce a new complement of language forms we can use to overcome our own immunity to change.

Through their work with many businesspeople, doctors, educators, and consultants, Kegan and Lahey have discovered compelling ways to diagnose and overcome our immunity to change. Their book shares a new “learning technology” enabling readers to make the same discoveries for themselves. The result is an unleashing of fresh energies and behaviors that truly foster growth and transformation in individuals and organizations.

Kegan and Lahey’s technology helps us see that for every unrealized commitment to change we genuinely hold and act out of, we also have a conflicting and harder to recognize commitment that prevents the very change we desire. A CEO, for example, may hold a genuine commitment to empowering her employees and fostering more collaboration in her organization. She may even take steps to distribute leadership, dole out responsibility to her staff, and provide professional development to enhance individual employees’ ability to assume new duties. But at the same time a part of her is simultaneously committed, tacitly, to maintaining control, or to feeling indispensable, or to preserving a past to which she has loyalties. She subtly or overtly undermines her new initiatives by behaviors in service of her hidden commitments. Her conflicting commitments create a dynamic equilibrium - her own version of an immune system - preventing real and lasting change. How can she overcome her immune system? Even if she does, how can her organization overcome its own immune system?

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work shows us how to transform the familiar work languages of:

  • Praising or stroking into ongoing regard
  • Complaint and regret into the expression of energy-releasing belief and mission
  • Blame and avoidance into responsibility
  • Unfulfilled “new year’s resolutions” into diagnosable immunities to change
  • Status-quo-preserving assumptions into immunity-disrupting ideas and actions

An Outward Bound ropes course for the mind, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work offers important insight into the complex subject of how we can achieve what we conceive.

Dr. Kegan is the first William and Miriam Meehan Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He lectures and consults widely within the United States and has been the recipient of numerous professional awards and honorary doctorates. The author and lead researcher of a theory of the evolution of adult competencies, his books, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, and In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modem Life, have been translated and published throughout the world.

Dr. Lahey is research director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and cofounder and senior consultant at Minds at Work, a developmentally oriented consulting firm that works with businesses and schools to tum workplace problems and issues into opportunities for transformational learning.

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