The Other N-Word

We’re familiar with the n-word. It’s offensive, demeaning. There is, however, another n-word. Most folks are unfamiliar with it, evidenced in the fact that we use it all the time. And when adults use the other n-word with adults, the results are not good.

I became acquainted with the familiar n-word through my Aunt Myrtle. She said there were “good blacks” and “bad n_____s.” Good blacks “knew their place” while bad ones were “uppity.” After college, I moved south. Many folks, including Christians, called every black person “n_____.” The n-word was a cultural given. So is the other n-word.

The other n-word is found in the Bible, in the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14). Late in the day, the crowds listening to Jesus become hungry. The disciples say they need to go away and find food (or imply that Jesus needs to feed them). We know this because of Jesus’ reply: “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!” There’s the other n-word – telling another adult what they need to do. It’s demeaning, because you assume you have authority over another’s life.

I believe there is only one book in the Bible where an adult explicitly tells other adults what they need to do. In the Book of Hebrews, the readers are adults practicing a childish (not childlike) faith. In their immaturity, they “have need again for someone to teach you… you have come to need milk and not solid food” (5:12). “You have need of endurance” (10:36). I don’t believe there’s another instance in scripture where an adult tells another adult what they need to do. Why does this writer? I don’t know. But here’s a better question: why do we routinely tell others what they need to do?

“You need to get your reports in on time.” “You need to get involved.” “You need to be accountable.” We hear the other n-word all the time. Using it this way generally backfires. The other n-word treats adults as children. Telling children what they need to do is appropriate. But until recently, childhood was considered a short period of time. In medieval times, “after the age of seven, children entered the adult world,” writes James Davison Hunter.1 If ancient societies got this right, telling anyone past the age of seven what he or she needs to do will yield diminishing results.

I became sensitized to the other n-word through the work of David Burnham, formerly a professor at Harvard. His company acquaints leaders with the neuroscience behind high-performing organizations (www.burnhamrosen.com). Burnham has periodically been my coach. I recently asked for his advice in preparing to meet with an executive team seeking to improve employee accountability. I asked each individual beforehand to describe the problem. They emailed their answers to me, and in every case, the n-word, or variations thereof, appeared. I asked Burnham about this use of the word need.

“Suggesting that someone needs to do something is, in effect, a suggestion by a supposedly ‘benevolent authority’ that the listener become dependent,” he wrote. When we feel that someone is trying to make us dependent, feelings of opposition are often aroused. The listener will feel that the “authority” is being critical as well as wrong. “It’s a true paradox, since the intent is so often to help but the long-term effectiveness of telling someone what they need to do often falls far short of expectations.”

It’s difficult to be self-aware of this paradox since 70 to 95 percent of our behaviors are non-conscious. We can, however, observe the detrimental effects in the opposition behaviors of others. Passive forms of opposition include missed deadlines and a lack of accountability. Aggressive forms include subterfuge and flat-out rebellion. The lesson? Treat adults like children and they’ll act like children.

The solution is re-scripting the way we talk. Burnham’s approach is called “return authority.” Take the example of accountability. Returning authority is manifested in four behaviors. The first is focus on results. For example, instead of telling colleagues they need to become accountable, ask: “What is the work problem we’re trying to solve?” The second behavior is grasping the problem’s paradoxes and complexities. Those closest to the problem often see complexities that managers miss. The question might be: “How would we solve this?” The third step is building mutuality – exploring the many ways that we might solve the problem of accountability. The last step is returning authority – asking colleagues, “What would be a beneficial solution?”

If re-scripting sounds arduous, you’re right. Research indicates that an individual’s motives are quite volatile until age 20, at the latest. Then they stabilize and remain relatively consistent. That’s why, after age 20, only 20 percent of adults ever change the way they actually behave. And they only change “through a direct action plan,” writes Burnham. The plan is relatively simple. You “script” beforehand the words you plan to use with someone else. You submit the script to a trained advisor who detects words that debase adults (ex: “You need to get your reports in on time”). The advisor deletes those words and you “re-script,” incorporating questions consistent with the Burnham approach. You write, rewrite, and rewrite again – until you get it right. It takes roughly one to three years for this approach to become second nature.

If you think words aren’t that important, consider that God created the heavens and earth through wise words. We’re made in the image of God, so “a divine element is present in language,” Richard Weaver noted.2 Words matter. “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (Proverbs 25:11). Telling adults what they need to do is a word spoken in wrong circumstances. Agreeing on a beneficial solution is a word spoken in right circumstances.

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1 James Davison Hunter, “Wither Adulthood?” The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2009.
2 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 148.

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10 Comments

  1. This is profound, and thanks for addressing the difficulty of putting re-scripting into practice.

    I assume the same change ought to occur with phrases like “We need to…” or “I need to…,” but would these changes be for the same reasons of returning authority and speaking like an adult (even to ourselves)?

  2. Outstanding. There really is nothing worse than hearing “you” statements thrown at you, the inevitability of it turning into an offense-defense competition comes from that. I see marital solutions abounding in the approach you’re beginning to map out. It really is adult boundary setting. I love this line: “The advisor deletes those words and you re-script, incorporating questions consistent with the Burnham approach.” Asking non-rhetorical questions does bring about mutuality. I think another approach is consistent with adult boundary setting: if the manager makes an I statement (and not the terrible you statements), and then asks a good question.

  3. Thanks, Mike. This is helpful; God does not coerce.

    Question: do you or how would you differentiate the language of “ought” from the use of the n-word?

    For example, when we state that we “ought” to be kind to each other, are we (at least by implication) stating that we/you “need” to be kind?

  4. Great post.

    My question is in line with Gerard’s…I was thinking about the use of the word “should”. When we use that word, are we implying “ought” or “need”?

  5. I’m afraid so.

    Anytime you tell, infer, imply – you name it – that someone else needs to, ought to, should do so-and-so, you are assuming authority for their life. That’s a move guaranteed to reduce effectiveness.

  6. Thanks for clarifying Mike, but it leads to more questions.

    Ought-is-can-will.

    Is it best if our language used to engage others comes from “can” instead of ought?

    Ought describes the setting? But for engagement we communicate in terms of “what can you do to make it better”?

  7. Gerard:

    Close, but not quite. The best approach is to ask “we” questions, starting with focusing on the outcome, or the problem being addressed. “What are we trying to solve here?” The Burnham sequence I outlined offers the best chance for someone to see for themselves what they ought to do.

  8. In the psychology of Transactional Analysis, the “Parent” ego state is “You” based. The Nurturing Parent says, “You are wonderful, You can do anything, I love you!” The Critical (or Controlling) Parent says, “Sit down, Shut-Up, Be good, Be nice, Be quiet, Clean your plate, You SHOULD work harder, You NEED to sign up today, You NEED to hold your people accountable,”…..and so on. When we go Critical Parent on others, we invite their REBELLIOUS CHILD ego state to join the fray and fight back.
    My advice (given so gently and unassumingly) to my clients is, “Stop ‘SHOULDING’ on people.” I NEED to add to that: “Stop ‘NEEDING’ on people.”
    I have finally stopped SHOULDING and NEEDING on people myself, now I just ask, “May I make a suggestion?” They always say, “Yes.”
    Your take on becoming a benevolent authority and creating dependency was quite a fascinating new way to REFRAME the problem.
    Thanks!

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