Language and the Pursuit of Happiness (and Business)

Language and the Pursuit of Happiness

Chalmers Brothers’ book, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness has a lot of interesting things to say about language and how it shapes our lives, both internally and our relationships.

To start, he points out that we live in language the same way that fish live in water. It so pervasive that we don’t even notice it. Yet, because we do live in language, we can take greater control over our lives by understanding the language in our own heads, and in discussions with others.

There’s a lot to like about the book, but I want to focus on how it applies to business language, particularly in proposals. Brothers brings a different perspective than I do on this blog, but I think both viewpoints aim at the same thing– shared understanding and a successful foundation for joint action.

Crucially, the more distinctions we have in our language for a particular domain, the more powerful actions we can take. Brothers gives the example of someone like himself taking a walk in the woods, versus a forest ranger. Or consider a patient coming to see a doctor. Or a gourmet chef talking with Elon Musk (are they talking about cooking or about rockets?). The point is that we get deeper, richer distinctions that reflect more expertise and more possibilities.

A physicist and a chemist do not see the same things, even when they are both looking at the same slide on the microscope. A professional forester and a woodcarver do not see the same things, even when both are looking at the same forest.

Brothers’ notes that how we speak to ourselves, whether deliberately or semiconsciously, shapes how we see the world, and what possible actions we can take. One example that he revisits repeatedly is the language we need to be open to learning. We have to be able to say, “I don’t know.” If we can do that, we can put ourselves in a place to learn. This could be a new skill, or just really learning about a prospect’s business.


If I get my hand slapped for acknowledging I don’t know something, I’m certainly not going to be eager in the future to acknowledge an area of not knowing. Earlier, we observed that lots of bad consequences seem to occur when change happens and learning does not. And if “I don’t know” is the first step in learning, and given that change is upon us and learning is critical, this is important to notice.


For individuals, this is also important as we seek to produce happiness and well-being and results in our lives. When we’re faced with recurrent breakdowns, with situations that seem to occur over and over again and that we aren’t navigating through effectively, what’s now available is to declare ignorance and open ourselves up to learning. We can call this declaring oneself to be a beginner in a certain domain of learning. This is the starting point for any journey of change and improvement.

Unfortunately, as he notes “success is a learning disability,” making it harder for many of us to admit that we need to learn. (Another great quote: “ignorance (I don’t know) is not the opposite of learning, it’s the threshold of learning.”)

(I remember going through a period in my consulting business when I was an “expert”, but I got caught up in my own head with not wanting to be ignorant about anything, which made it much harder to learn (and be effective). In my older and hopefully wiser years, I have no problem asking questions, and when I’m just getting up to speed, I often start with, “I’m going to ask what’s probably a dumb question…” Now I can learn much faster and be much more helpful.)

Whatever is going on in our heads, things get more complicated when we bring in other people, which is all the time for most of us “non-hermits”. Whenever there is a conversation between two people, there are actually three conversations. There’s the external dialogue that we would see on a video recording of the conversation, then there’s the running dialog in each person’s head. This can lead somewhere totally different, or it can derail the conversation, for example if we are thinking of the awesome list of features we want to mention, rather than focusing on what the other person is actually saying. Not only does this cut us off from information we need, the other person will pick up on this, and start wondering why things seem strange. As Brothers notes, “the world interacts with your public identity, not with who you think you are.”

This ties into another important distinction–“right/wrong” versus “working/not working.” Brothers notes that we often get caught up in trying to be “Right”, especially in our relationships with others, rather than effective. Especially when we are in conversations with prospects, trying to prove that we are right can be very counterproductive. (Note that we could want to be “right” that they need our product, or “right” that they’re a bad fit and don’t want our product.)

If I think the way I listen, the way I interpret, the way I “see things” is Right, and yours happens to be different, what does that make you? It makes you Wrong. And how many of us find ourselves gravitating toward people who constantly make us wrong?

We often make people wrong who don’t have the same distinctions we do.


Laying this groundwork, Brothers moves into different types of language.

Perhaps the most interesting “distinction” here is between “assertions” and “assessments”.

Assertions are descriptive statements of fact (note that they may not be true, but they are stated as a fact, and can be proven or disproven). For example, a prospect might say, “sales are up 10% this year.”

Assessments are opinions about assertions. (“Sales should have been up 20%.”) They are often forward-looking.

We often blur assertions and assessments together, but, “as non-hermits, our ability to keep assertions and assessments separate, distinct from each other is critical.”

When having sales conversations and taking notes and preparing proposals, it’s really important to be clear on assertions and assessments, especially the chance of your assessments leaking into the proposal as if they were from the prospect. When I see bad proposals (and I see a lot of them, leading to my mantra “a proposal is a story, not a brochure (starring the prospect, not you)”), there’s usually very little in there about the customer’s assessments, and too much of the seller’s assessments. If the proposal is a story, and I’m reading it with an eye towards possibly taking action, do I want the story to be about the sales rep or me?

Declarations are decisions, ranging from “yes/no”, to “I’m sorry” or “this isn’t working” or “what we’ve found to be great is when…”

Requests and offers seem pretty obvious, but the sales cycle is full of them, and a successful proposal creates many more. Having good clarity around requests, both ways, makes sales cycle more productive (and more fun). In many cases, I’ve seen that the inability to say “I don’t know” creates confusion around requests. Whether the prospect is asking for a reference, when what they really want is someone from their industry, or if the seller needs some data to recommend a course for action but that data doesn’t exist in the form the seller wants, people can expend a lot of time and energy on tasks that lead to frustration instead of furthering the project.

Promises are the fabric of relationships, and the proposal is not just a story, but a set of promises based on assertions, assessments, declarations, and requests. “Sales are up 10%, but if we can’t increase growth, the board will seek changes… We need a way to generate more leads without spending more than $X… We will start the project on XYZ date, by bringing these people into a room. We will hit the following milestones [tasks assigned to both customer and vendor]. We will achieve the following results by PQR date…”

Note that even before you get to the proposal stage, you have lots of promises in a sales cycle– meeting invitations, agreements to exchange information or find answers to questions. Depending on how the other party keeps his or her promises, we will make assessments about whether we want to work with them (from both sides).

To create a compelling proposal, it’s all about having a clear sense of what’s happening in the customer’s head– their assertions and assessments, declarations and the promises they expect and the offers they make to help move the project forward.

Check out Language and the Pursuit of Happiness, it’s a short, helpful read, that will give you insight into not only your sales efforts, but your other business relationships, personal relationships, and even your relationship with yourself.

We’re not human beings, we’re human becomings. This is what this book is all about. What do we choose for ourselves? What do we declare? What will we bring forth? Because if we’re going to do it at all, we’re going to do it in language.






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