Speak the Language of Creativity

During our multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder workshops, there comes a moment when we have to talk about terminology.  Every profession and discipline has a language of its own, rife with acronyms and jargon that make for efficient communication amongst peers within the field but can be confusing, misleading or off-putting to people from other specializations.

Very often, we create a wall of definitions and invite people to think of all the terms that might be pertinent to the topic of the workshop. Then we ask people to define these words and phrases. The conversation that ensues sometimes turns into a debate, from which emerges a clearer understanding of the term, or else multiple definitions.

For instance, at a workshop on synthetic biology, the physicists and mathematicians started using the term vector – a quantity having direction as well as magnitude – which confused the biologists, who were thinking epidemiological terms in which case a vector is a living carrier that transmits and infectious agent. I think the computer scientists had their own definition, too.

We find it useful, then, to map out the landscape of the language of a workshop. Occasionally you’ll see a participant reviewing the wall of words during a break, sometimes adding a word that came into question during a discussion, or adding a term they’d never heard of before.

This raised our attention to the fact of how much we rely on language to convey meaning, and that if we don’t have a shared understanding, it’s harder to work together and collaborate creatively. Even the creative collaboration has its own language. Just as the scientists arrive with their own lexicon, so do we facilitators. We’ve learned, over time, that the syntax of our métier has been crafted to aide innovation. By using our language deliberately, we can be induce more creative responses.

A few examples:

Pose problems as questions.

A problem, stated as a sentence with a period at the end, is a complaint. It has a weight to it, it drags us down. A problem posed as a question is an invitation for ideas and solutions. It’s not a finite statement about what’s wrong, it’s a solicitation for options to consider. We use a few different stem phrases to turn a problem into a constructive open-ended question: How to? How might we? In what ways might we?

Notice in the last question the word ways is plural. It’s one more letter on one little word, but it speaks volumes. It says you’re seeking number of options – more than one – not just the first idea, usually habitual, that comes to mind.

Ask “Why?” or “What’s stopping you?

People often rush to ideas and solutions, but sometimes the creative approach is to ask more questions in order to understand root causes. When someone describes a problem, instead of thinking of answers, try asking an open-ended question like “Why is this important?” Or “Why do you want to do this?” This reveals new information that might help you come up with a different approach. And “What’s stopping you?” also uncovers interesting data that can lead to a different perspective about the challenge and ultimately novel ideas.

Avoid “Yes, but…”

This is a thinly veiled way of saying “no.” If we’re looking to be truly generative, we accept every idea as possible and build on it – at least long enough to play with the concept and exhaust its potential before dismissing it. We encourage at least a few rounds of “Yes, and…” with genuine attempts to make an idea workable before setting it aside and moving on to another.

Use might instead of can.

The word “can” has a black-and-white quality to it; you can or you can’t. There’s a judgment implied, and premature judgment is number one killer of creative ideas. It’s very subtle, but replacing “can” with “might” opens the door for potential options. How might we do that? How might that work?

Say, “What I see happening is…”

It’s really important to set objectives, and even though they can change, having a clear goal is a good practice. It’s especially useful when it’s an imaginative goal. So when you start to speak about a desired outcome using language that conjures up a vision, or a picture of the ideal scenario, it often leads to a much more creative finished product.

It’s also a good way to communicate with your collaborators. Nobody likes to work with someone who’s bossy, always telling you what to do, yet it is important to convey to your colleagues what kind of outcome you expect. Express your expectations in this visual, suggestive way, and people might not only accept it more easily, they’re more likely to build on it and make it even better.

Evaluate and critique with “What I like about it is…”

Scrutinize an idea by examining its positive attributes first, always giving burgeoning ideas a chance to be polished and corrected before dismissing them. It doesn’t mean that we don’t point out the downsides and drawbacks of a new idea, but we expand on its good points first, and then when we get to the bad points, we pose them in the form of a question (see above). The language we suggest is not “that won’t work,” but rather, “how might we make it workable?”

In general, the language of creativity tends to be more positive and supportive. That shouldn’t be misinterpreted being too nice or going easy on ideas that require rigorous improvement. It just means the approach is productive rather than destructive; the vocabulary is generous before it’s skeptical. Don’t underestimate the impact of language on our creativity. It’s amazing how just a few words will put us in the right frame of mind to generate new possibilities.


Keep Going: A paper about everyday creativity in language, book about creativity in informal communication, and a philosophical discussion of creativity and language.