Language Pre-requisites for Social Change

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I want all people to have adequate health care, but I never say “people have a right to health care”. I know that stating it this way will make it less likely to happen. Instead I say “I have a responsibility to help ensure that people have adequate health care”. Stating it this way makes it much more likely to come about. The former statement makes people feel weak and vulnerable whereas the latter conveys a feeling of strength.

Dissecting the Words

Saying that people have a right to something reflects a feeling of entitlement, which comes from a position of weakness. It’s indicative of a belief that someone else needs to give us something or otherwise we won’t have it. When we believe we have no power and are dependent on someone else for our well being, that’s what we will experience. We’ll operate as though we have no power and then end up being dependent on someone else for our well being. It’s not to our benefit to proliferate a belief in entitlement.

I think it’s this inherent projection of weakness that turns many people off of national health care and many other social benefits. I’d venture to say that most people care about the well being of others, but none of us wants a society of disempowered people.

In contrast, saying that we have a responsibility to provide something reflects a feeling of empowerment. It says that we hold the keys and can provide it. Now, you may be thinking that you don’t have the ability to provide health care for others, and therefore you can’t have the responsibility. I say we do have the power. The entity that we call the government and think of as having the power is simply a representation of us. There is nothing out there external from us that has more power than we do.

Be Aware

This is just one example of how our language is a window into our beliefs. It’s important because a nation’s (or a business’) belief system is the most foundational element that determines its experience of success. All emotions, ideas and actions arise from its beliefs. The words we hear and speak program our beliefs.

If we want societies that thrive, there are certain beliefs that must be reflected in our language. The operative beliefs are those pertaining to physical security, such as whether we’re worthy of having money, good health, and protection from harm, as well as whether these things are abundant in the world. Also important is whether we’re confident in our abilities to actualize these things. When we use empowering language in reference to these beliefs, we set the stage for positive social change.

To gain more clarity about the impact of particular words, test the power of them in your body. Compare how your body feels when you say the words “we have a right to health care” vs. when you say “we have a responsibility to provide health care”. For me, when I say the former, I feel negative and get a burning sensation in the pit of my stomach. When I say the latter, I feel a warm tingling in my chest and throat. That indicates to me that the latter phrase has more coherence, leading to better outcomes.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Tiger Todd  January 9, 2012

    Absolutely. In my experience, I’ve also found that the crowd can change rapidly by a) practicing what you preach, b) walking your talk, c) aligning your face with your words and actions, and d) making those in need of change “earn” at every step along the way.

  2. Dan Oestreich  January 9, 2012


    This is beautifully stated, and I like that you related the outcome to feelings in the body. The underlying assumptions are critical to either moving toward a state of personal and social well-being or moving into inner and outer discord. Often, we don’t slow down enough to notice those implicit negative assumptions — and may not want to acknowledge them and what they mean about us. And this seems to be particularly true when groups actively share a particular set of assumptions such as “what that other group is doing to us” or “what top management is doing to us” or “what the employees are doing to us,” etc. that can, in fact, be quite subtly held. This leads to a self-reinforcing cycle of undiscussable issues that reflects the embedded parts of thinking; i.e., the assumptions that have “sunk into the body” in a way that makes it difficult to get out of the conflict, mistrust, and dependency behavior. The antidote begins with consciousness unearthing those beliefs front and placing them front and center for a willing examination of how we participate in the very problems we say we want to solve.

  3. Dr. Katie Garnett  January 10, 2012

    Hi Jackie – that is why I love The One Command – ‘I don’t know how all people everywhere have truly good health care, I only know they do do Now, and I am fulfilled’. Say that in theta and you directly affect the unified field.

  4. Mark Adams  January 11, 2012

    I really appreciate your perspective on this and I can echo complementary support for it from another perspective.

    I think we often confuse “rights” with “bestowed social privileges”. A right to health care assumes there is someone to provide it. Taken to an extreme such a right could mean a form of “enslavement” for the provider – they would have no legal option to refuse to provide such an apparently necessary service. Part of being in a “rich society” is we can make these bestowals without concerning ourselves too much with the implication of “duty to serve” aspect to it.

    A right that is not a bestowed privilege is one that is accessible under any condition – e.g., a Robison Crusoe like condition. Obviously as there is no service provider present there is no right that is claimable.

    Obviously one of the incredible privileges of living in societies such as ours is we can avail ourselves with services such as remarkable health services. And, because we are in the main generous, we incorporate programs and other supports to enable others who cannot afford such services on their own to have access to them. We take understandable pride in being able to do so.

    You point about having a responsibility (i.e., obligation?) to ensure such services are available is in my mind a slippery slope. What if you (or society cannot really afford to provide such services as it had in the past?). Would you still think that you (assuming you are a doctor) or someone else should provide such services. A right, almost by definition is immune from economic/financial constraints. This is the aspect of what you suggest that leaves me in the greatest quandary. If I am that doctor and I have only the capacity to look after a smaller number of patients than the demand/need requests, what should I do with this imposed sense of responsibility. I take the view that such dilemmas are self imposed and during periods of economic hardship warrant critical examination.

    Thank you for being so provocative and Regards

  5. Glen Fahs  January 29, 2012

    Good idea, Jackie.

    I do a short public workshop and webinar on “Overcoming a Culture of Entitlement.” It explores generational differences and positive accountability — among other topics.


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