Nouns and Norms

“Here is God’s purpose
for God, to me, it seems, is a verb not a noun,
proper or improper;
is the articulation not the art, objective or subjective;
is loving, not the abstraction “love” commanded or entreated;
is knowledge dynamic, not legislative code, not proclamation law. not academic dogma, not ecclesiastic canon.
Yes, God is a verb, the most active,
Let it burn swiftly.”
—Buckminster Fuller

Credit: Beth Scupham | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0
Credit: Beth Schupham | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0

There is a big difference between explaining “that” and experiencing THIS—between explaining the world with nouns vs. experiencing the world with verbs. As Buckminster Fuller (Bucky) implied in the poem above, the abstraction of love does not compare to the experience of loving.

It’s hard for us to acquire and apply a new skill if we don’t experience the benefit internally. Just explaining doesn’t really cut it. Think about the difference between getting an explanation of zooming down a zip line and actually doing it. Or reading about sex vs. making love. Or hearing about meditation compared to doing meditation.

The explanations don’t stack up to the experiences.

It seems to me we have had way too much “’splaining” going on these days without appreciating people’s actual experience. ‘Splaining is a form of condescension in which a member of a privileged group explains something to a member of a marginalized group as if the privileged person knows more about it.

For example, the Trump administration has been doing a lot of ‘splaining in its first three months: health care to the most vulnerable people, travel bans to the Muslim world, criminal justice to high-crime communities, climate change to coal workers, tax cuts for the rich to the people who can’t make ends meet, trade policies to manufacturing employees. What’s really strange is that people are buying the ‘splaining in spite of their experience.

I spent ten years teaching interpersonal skills to inmates, police officers, teachers, counselors, and psychiatrists. The psychiatrists were always the biggest challenge because they were more interested in labeling than listening—

which is another way of saying being more interested in the explanation than the experience. I’m sure that’s not true for all psychiatrists. I know a few who are very attentive and empathic.

One of the exercises I always used to grab participant’s attention was to introduce the listening module with a popularized version of old Chinese proverb:

“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." -Confucius

After I quoted the proverb, I would ask if anyone in the group could remember the proverb word for word.

Rarely would anyone be able to get the three elements verbatim in the right order.

Usually, they would mix up the hearing and remembering and then forget about the last, and most important, element – “I do and I understand.” I would explain that listening requires paying attention and eliminating distracting thoughts. I would use the proverb as an introduction to practicing the skill of listening so that the learners could experience what it feels like to “do it” actively, generously, and consciously.

They mastered the skill of listening by doing it, not by me explaining all the theoretical benefits of using the skill.

In short, when I do something new, or do something I’ve been doing my whole life with a new freshness and intention, my experience is at a different level of intensity.

Enabling people to create freshness in their lives can only be accomplished by experiencing the newness, not by someone explaining what the new experience might feel like.

One of my favorite experiences as an organizational psychologist was to help teams to create norms of their own choosing. They could list dozens of values (nouns) that would describe their desired work environment, for example: respect, trust, innovation, quality, integrity, collaboration, transparency, fairness.

Until those nouns were translated into norms, however, nothing would change because there was no common agreement about what the noun meant and there was no way to measure progress.

The value of respect, therefore, might be operationalized by agreed upon norms such as:

  • We give constructive feedback to each other.
  • We engage in open, honest, and direct communication.
  • We share our best ideas with each other.
  • Leaders are open to hearing the good, the bad, and ugly.

Fairness might be operationalized by norms such as:

  • We tell people where they stand.
  • We recognize people for their contributions.
  • We compensate people equitably.

Norms require action verbs to make them real. People may be able to talk eloquently about nouns, but they experience normative actions directly and deeply.

Title: The Montreal Biosphère by Buckminster Fuller, 1967 | Author: Cédric THÉVENET | Source: Wikimedia | License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Title: The Montreal Biosphère by Buckminster Fuller, 1967 | Author: Cédric THÉVENET | Source: Wikimedia | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Executive explanations of desired values in the work environment are paled by day-to-day employee experiences of how things actually work “around here.”

I would encourage leaders to take a culture audit once every six months to determine progress on desired and required values and norms. Every employee was able to rate the strength, importance, and direction of each norm on a five-point scale. The results were quickly analyzed and shared with the entire employee population. Strengths and progress were celebrated; norms with big gaps between importance and direction were identified. Task forces were formed to brainstorm creative ways of strengthening the norms. Employees experienced the difference and appreciated the changes because the norms were of their own choosing. That’s how you create a work environment in which people choose to be optimally motivated. That’s how you translate nouns into verbs.

As Bucky Fuller said, God is a verb.

Explaining nouns (values) concocted by the C-Suite executives only results in rolling eyes and yawning mouths. Inviting employees to create norms of their own choosing and then letting them share stories of how they experience the new norms inspires people to greater levels of service and productivity.

In a book I wrote in 2009, Creating Organizational Soul, I shared the path, the principles, the possibilities, and the pragmatics of successful culture change.

Through the experiences of business leaders, educators, and not-for-profit organizations, I shared how teams of people can create real soul in their organizations. I also described my experiences with the pain and poisons of toxic workplace cultures.

The book included tools for measuring organizational soul, measuring soulful and soulless conditions, setting goals, and measuring performance. If you have any interest, it’s available on Amazon.

Author: Eli Francis | License: CC0
Credit: Eli Francis

As I have transitioned my focus from organizational health to spiritual health, I find the same phenomenon is true. I can read self-help books and esoteric literature until my eyes glaze over. While I have always loved new ideas and embraced them enthusiastically, they still remained in my head. Even my blog posts are primarily word play. I’m simply summarizing and re-arranging ideas that have been around since ancient times.

Yes, I try to present them in creative and engaging ways by poking fun at my own shortcomings and (hopefully) by making the ideas accessible without trivializing them. As a result, I have accumulated a large repertoire of nouns in my vocabulary. I have read an enormous amount about a ton of concepts – many of which I have shared with you in these posts.

The truth, however, is that many of these concepts have remained in my head and have not found their way to my heart and soul. I have embraced them, but not embodied them.

"A Humument p190: Silence & Stars" | Artist: Tom Phillips| Source: | License: © Tom Phillips
Tom Phillips’ work A Humument: A treated Victorian novel is an altered text, a work in progress since the 1960s. “It is a piece of art created over W H Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document whose title results from the partial deletion of the original title: A Human document. Phillips drew, painted, and collaged over the pages, while leaving some of the original text to show through.” -Wikipedia | “A Humument p190: Silence & Stars” | Artist: Tom Phillips | Source: | License: © Tom Phillips

I have learned, though, that experiences are what make a difference. About five years ago, with my head stuffed full of concepts and principles, I travelled to China to spend a month with my Qigong master, Luke Chan, whom I first met over 20 years ago.

After a month of intensive training with four other seekers, I experienced what being centered and empty actually felt like.

It was a beautiful experience that I shared with four other beautiful souls.

About three years ago, I re-connected with my Vietnam Vet buddy, Artie Egendorf, who had just founded Energy’s Way. Working collaboratively with him not only re-kindled my dedication to going inside, but also freed me to let my book learning filter down into my bones. THIS actually accelerated my Qigong practice. Artie helped me experience, more deeply than ever before, what opening and harmonizing really meant – what it felt like to walk lightly.

He showed me how experiencing THIS far surpassed any explanation of that.

I’m not going to try to explain Energy’s Way to you, but I encourage you to experience it. You will feel through your whole body the difference between THIS and that. Here is a link to a video demonstrating one of Energy’s Way’s skills.

Last week I posted a Prayer for the Future. Energy’s Way is an essential ingredient to add in any program designed be make that prayer a reality.

Check it out.

In the meantime, I’m hoping we can quit arguing about nouns and start aligning behind healthy, constructive norms.

Also published on Medium.

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Ron irwin
Ron irwin

Beautifully conveyed Ricky! Keep ’em coming! RonnyDonny

Artie Egendorf, PhD
Hey Rick, Mind if I ask a few questions, so you can check on how I do responding? What IS this? That is, what this “THIS!” business you say has been so striking and valuable to experience? Hmmm. I notice that as soon as I ask this question, which comes so automatically, beginning with “what . . ?” I’ve already lost track of where you mean to point me, becaue I’m back tracking a noun or something, and don’t begin to get closer to any norm. For “this” points, first and foremost, right? But at what? Ooops, there goes the… Read more »

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