The 6 Basic Linguistic Acts: A Good, High-Level Understanding

Episode 052

Nov 8, 2023

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The world of linguistic acts

[Listen at approximately 00:12]

Organisations are linguistic structures built out of words and maintained by conversation. Even problems that aren't strictly communication, such as failures of mechanical systems, can be explored in terms of things said and not said, questions asked and not asked, conversations never begun or left uncompleted, and alternate explanations not discussed
~ Walter Truett Anderson ~

Walter Truett Anderson is an American author and thinker known for his work on cultural change and transformation.

Today, we embark on a journey into the world of linguistic acts and the construct of language.

As mentioned in last week's Episode, E051, this topic fascinates us, and we're eager to delve deeper into it. Working as a team brings the joy of not needing to possess all knowledge and embracing the fact that we don't know everything.

It's about our ability and willingness to learn from one another. Our strong learning culture enables us to learn and explore the intricacies of language together.

Karin's Journey

I first encountered the term "linguistic acts" during my ontological coaching studies back in 2013, and it has held my attention ever since.

I vividly recall wondering why I wasn't taught this in school – and, by the way, I still don't think it's part of the curriculum.

However, linguistic acts are integral to our communication, reflecting our way of being, and it's essential to note that language's impact is as significant as listening, our moods, and emotions.

The foundation of ontological coaching and the concept of ontology revolves around the scientific study of human existence and, more specifically, our way of being. When we discuss this "way of being," it encompasses language, moods, emotions, and our physical presence.

It's fascinating, particularly in today's world, where we do a lot of talking but often fall short in the listening department. We describe people as moody or emotional without considering the influence of the body. There's emerging research on how even our dietary choices impact these elements mentioned.

So, when we talk about language, moods, emotions, and the body - today, we'll primarily focus on language – and there's much more to it than meets the eye.

The constructs of language

As we often say, conversations are the cornerstone of everything, and language plays a pivotal role in shaping the world we envision and the realities we inhabit, including how we collaborate.

The construct of language, mood, emotion, and the body resonates with why we emphasise emotional, physical, and psychological aspects when addressing organisational safety culture. It's a holistic approach encompassing all these elements, and these points align with our work in numerous ways.

One of our favourite words is "communication," but when we ask people where they perceive challenges, they often point to communication.

However, what does that mean?

When we contemplate how we communicate and the structure of the language we use, we start with two fundamental questions:

  • Why do we communicate with each other in the first place, and
  • How effectively do we employ language in our communication?

Communication is an expansive concept that extends beyond mere words or verbal exchanges.

Our questions might lead to responses like: "To achieve results, get things done, share expectations, or convey information," especially in a work context. At home or in personal situations, communication often serves the purpose of moving forward.

We invite you [our listeners/readers] to ponder these questions because they profoundly impact every aspect of our lives. We'll likely repeat this phrase quite a bit – "Nothing happens without the phenomenon called language." Whether it's an intimate conversation, a safety discussion, or any other context, language is always at play.

Today, our goal isn't to delve too deeply into the science but to offer a high-level understanding of these basic linguistic acts, which stems from Karin's ontological studies and our exploration of communication.

We're not linguists, but this is something everyone practices daily in one way or another.

It's about improving the quality of our communication and how this enhancement can influence our conversations, fostering safety, efficiency, and trust.

And one of our personal favourites – how can we reduce conversational waste?

The 6 basic linguistic acts

[Listen at approximately 09:00]

Let's take a closer look by briefly introducing these terms, and then we'll explore each in more depth.

1- Assertions: which are essentially the assumptions we make.

2- Declarations: the statements we make.

3- Assessments: are akin to judgments and opinions.

4- Requests: to others.

5- Offers: offer something.

6- Promises: represent our commitments, so what are we committing to?

Assertions (assumptions)

We remember it used to be the second slide in our presentation deck, the one with the circle, illustrating the "no-go zone" between us and others when we make assumptions.

So, what exactly is an assumption?

Most people find it challenging to utter the word "assumption" these days; however, when we discuss assertions, it's all about you, the observer.

Consider that the world we perceive is based on our observations. Two people could look at the same thing and see it differently – a phenomenon with significant implications, especially in the realm of safety.

We think of those optical illusions where a slight colour change can make something appear to have a different height or depth.

Are you looking at the number six or nine, depending on your perspective?
You're both correct; it's just a matter of viewing it differently - the world is but an illusion.

As observers, we document what we witness, essentially making assumptions about our observations, and these assumptions can either be true or false.

Karin vividly recalls the captivating discussions during her studies. She used the phrase:
"the truth of the matter is... according to who?"

Whose truth is it, from which perspective, and based on what criteria?

These assertions can be classified as true or false, depending on the accepted evidence that can be provided. For instance, when conducting a safety risk assessment, the assessment's accuracy hinges on the available evidence or the group's collective evaluation of the risk in that particular situation.

So, in that moment, it represents the truth; however, another group of individuals may assess the risk differently.

This ties into risk tolerance, perception, and understanding – are you fearful of your own shadow, or do you view everything as an adventure waiting to be explored? And where does this fit in?

It's all about how we observe the world and bringing awareness to that process.

Even as we [the Safety Collaborators] engage in this conversation, it's opening up many thoughts based on our extensive discussions over the years. What's crucial here is that it emanates from within us. It reflects our way of being, whether as individuals or as a collective [we initially hesitated to use the term "way of being," but decided to incorporate it as it holds relevance].

Our assertions [or assumptions], statements, and judgments can be irrelevant or relevant, depending on the context.

It boils down to what matters to us.

Concerns hold significance for us, whether as individuals or as a collective. And here is where it becomes a vital construct: when we discuss assertions, we acknowledge at the outset that words create worlds.

However, assumptions come first because we initially observe and then articulate our words. It's intriguing because we are describing the world as we see it.

There's a flip here - the image of an infinity loop comes to mind. On one side, we are the observers, the creators, but then we transition to assessments.

Declarations and assessments

Assessments involve making statements about what we've observed, and these are referred to as declarations. Declarations can encompass a wide range of elements.

Our assertions pertain to the world as we perceive it initially.

It's about what we see, and then we proceed to describe it. We achieve this through statements, judgments, and opinions. In the realm of linguistic acts, these are classified as declarations and assessments.

In essence, assessments, or those judgments and opinions, serve as a form of declaration – they are a type of statement. When we pass judgment on something, we are essentially making a statement about it.

"I'm expressing a judgment regarding that screen in front of me."

And what comes to mind is that you're making a judgment and asserting that this is your truth or a version of it - it represents what you perceive as your truth in that moment.

  • Can these assessments be tested and changed?
  • How do we adapt when new information emerges?

We are, in fact, creators of assessments.

We engage in this process throughout the day; it's an inherent part of being human.
We form judgments and express opinions.

It could relate to another person, a wall across the room, a piece of equipment, or our surroundings. We also need to consider factors like biases, although that's a topic for another day.
Biases play a role here because they influence our assessments.

When making assessments, we often employ our past experiences to guide us into the future. We make observations about something, then issue statements based on our past – this could veer into neuroscience, although we won't go into it now.

These assessments are derived from our experiences and our interpretations of them.


I might consider a particular object to be red based on my past experiences, but now it appears to have a different hue, leaving me uncertain. Someone else might argue that it's not red. This often happens with shades of blue, where external factors come into play.

Personally, I struggle to distinguish dark blue; it often appears black to me, which is quite intriguing. So, when we make assessments, we typically draw on our past experiences and what we remember or believe.

It's genuinely interesting when you reflect on the flow of this process and how it's ingrained in our being. It's what keeps us safe because we can't question everything at all times.

So, we need to ask ourselves, how is this serving us?

If our assertions, assumptions, statements, and judgments are beneficial and align with our desired outcomes, then they are effective.

However, if they are not serving us well, how can we challenge and change them?


I recall a conversation with another coach this morning, and she shared a fantastic approach.

She encourages her clients to "stalk themselves." I love it! One example she gave was challenging clients to monitor how often they use the word "but" in a day without self-judgment.

The following week, the challenge is to catch themselves using "but" and replace it with "and." In the third week, they are encouraged to find humour in the fact that they still fall into habitual patterns.

It's a process of working toward change.

So, how do we "stalk" our assumptions, statements, and judgments that are not serving us well and transform them into ones that do?

This brings us to a broader context, involving not only the language we use but also how we listen, our mood, and our emotions. Mood and emotions differ slightly:

~ emotions are more momentary, such as when you encounter a snake, feel fear, and then the emotion vanishes when the snake is gone.

~ mood is a recurring state that becomes ingrained in our being. We might live in a mood of judgment, anxiety, or abundance and curiosity.

We're sure everyone can relate to this – recognising someone as an anxious person or someone with a judgmental disposition. Or a mood of appreciation – that person always seems to see the bright side of things.

It's all about those differences. But all of this stems from within us.

It's not external; it's not something happening to us. When it comes to the statements we make, declarations we issue, judgments, and opinions we hold, it all originates from within us.

Our entire being, every muscle, every fibre, adapts to this process.

Sometimes, in coaching, we use physical movement to shift away from certain thought patterns or expressions.

Why is our coaching colleague encouraging self-monitoring of the word "but"?
Because it's an ingrained habit. When you think about it, a habit is an embodied, repeated action that becomes a part of who we are. That's why changing habits can be pretty challenging.

So, having explored assertions or assumptions, declarations or statements, and assessments or judgments, what comes next?

Requests and offers

[Listen at approximately 19:20]

The next three linguistic acts are requests, offers, and promises.

A request is reaching out to others for their cooperation in taking some action that will address your concerns. Their cooperation can come in various forms, such as support, assistance, or help and is a collaborative process because it involves a two-way dialogue aimed at improving something in the future.

An offer is when we present ourselves as competent to address someone else's needs or concerns. When we make an offer, we assert our capability to do so.

This is where assessments, assertions, and declarations become significant, as we'll be making requests of people based on our judgments and assessments of their competence.

However, this can be a potentially risky territory.

In the workplace, this scenario is all too familiar. Someone walks in with a list of skills or certifications, and we assume they can handle everything in their field. Yet, each specific task may vary. They might excel in one aspect but struggle in another, despite what their CV suggests.

In essence, it all boils down to requests and offers.

A request involves seeking others' cooperation to assist with something, while an offer entails expressing your belief in your capacity or competence to provide assistance.

Are there specific elements to requests or offers?

There are some essential components you need for making a request or an offer. The most obvious ones are a speaker and a listener. Whether it's spoken communication, written messages, hand signals, head nods, or any other form, the key is effective communication.

When we make requests, there's an inherent assumption that the listener can help, regardless of whether they can or not. This is a common occurrence in the dynamics between leaders and teams.

We could dedicate an entire podcast to the art of listening, and we might do that.

There's something missing in the world of communication.

We call it a "breakdown," not because something's broken but because something essential is missing. It could be a request for help or an offer of assistance, covering a wide range of situations, from maintenance questions to inviting someone to the movies – basically, anything that involves future action.

For instance, "Could you grab me a cup of coffee?" is a classic example that involves some action in the future.

One intriguing aspect of this is the "conditions of satisfaction." These are the standards or criteria that define success in a request or offer. It's a critical component of the whole request-offer process. How often do we request or offer without specifying the standards we expect it to meet?

Nuala [example]

It has been a few years since I have been home to celebrate my birthday, so I decided to host a lovely lunch at home. However, due to my late arrival on Friday and everyone coming over on Saturday, I decided to hire a caterer.

One of the highlights on the menu was a Greek-themed pulled lamb dish.

In my mind, I was thinking of a beautiful leg of lamb marinated in yoghurt, garlic and mint and then slowly, slowly cooked until the meat fell apart. What I got was a tomato-based lamb stew.

Don't get me wrong; it was delicious, flavorful, and tasty.
It just wasn't what I had pictured.

I had requested a Greek lamb dish and mentioned something like "a nice pulled lamb." But I didn't convey the detailed mental image I had. To make matters worse, the caterer had asked if I had any specific preferences, and I casually replied, "Just make it yummy."

She did exactly that – it was very delicious, just not what I had envisioned.

It's a great example of numerous requests, offers, statements, declarations, and assumptions all coming together. It's almost like expecting others to read our minds.

So, the conditions of satisfaction:  Let's take that example to the workplace. One person is asking someone else to do something or to grab something. Now, often, this gets accredited to bad communication, or you weren't listening.

However, it boils down to whether the request was clear, what was expected, the timeframe, and the required skill level.

We're not saying we need to consider all this every time we communicate, but with practice, especially when making requests, we become more proficient. Clarity in requests, especially when we're clear about our expectations, is essential.

There are various fears and concerns associated with this as well.

One of the gripes with observation cards is that when something goes wrong or there's an incident, it's often attributed to "poor communication." Positive observations get praised for "good communication." But when we ask people what made the communication good, they struggle to explain because they don't understand the linguistic acts.

Thinking about how we can help people better understand this in their working environment, maybe it's about creating a guide – not a checklist, but a framework that outlines the factors contributing to effective communication.

This way, when teams put together observation cards for the organisation to learn from, they can assess communication. They can highlight aspects like clear requests, addressing assumptions, and understanding standards. Perhaps compile a list of five or ten points to describe what was good about their communication and how it could have been improved.

"Shared background of obviousness" is a fascinating term. It means having a shared understanding without the need for extensive words.

Sometimes, a raised eyebrow or a specific gesture can convey a whole message. It's not just about fancy language; it's also about body language, actions, and those non-verbal cues that help us understand each other. It's about sharing meaning.

And let's not forget the timeframes. How often do we make requests or offers without specifying when they should be done?

Emotions and moods play a role, too. Sometimes, you might be pleading for help, while other times, you're casually making an offer. The context matters, as does your body language – whether you're fully committed or sceptical.

So, when we think about the generic structure of a request, it's asking that: You do "A" for me, according to "B" standards, for "C" reasons by "D" time.

Making effective requests isn't just about following a formula; it's about understanding how all these pieces come together. Remember, it's not just about asking; it's also about how we respond.

This weekend, when Nuala's pulled lamb didn't match her mental picture, she wasn't too surprised or upset. She realised she hadn't made a clear request. With this structure, she could see where she went wrong. So, she decided to enjoy what was in front of her, knowing that no one else could read her mind.

It's a lesson in taking responsibility for communication and understanding the elements that make requests and offers work better.

This ties in with awareness – the more we become conscious of our communication, our choice of words, our body language, and our understanding of our own emotions and how they impact us, the better we can navigate life.

If we lack awareness in these areas, we might find ourselves getting really angry at times. Nuala could have ruined the entire party if she had thought, "Why did I even bother?"

It's incredible how one thing, amidst all the other amazing things, could be destroyed. It affects not just you but the environment around you, including the people and the atmosphere. It's not just about you; it's about how it impacts others and for what purpose – one of our favourite questions in this realm: for the sake of what?

Promises (commitments)

[Listen at approximately 30:00]

Now, let's talk about making promises or commitments. This happens when we accept a request or make an offer, but various choices are involved. Consider this:

  • If we use a request and then make a declaration of acceptance, stating that we will do 'whatever the declaration entails,' that constitutes a promise.
  • Alternatively, if we make an offer and follow it up with a declaration of acceptance or a statement, that also equals a promise.

The interesting part is there are different possible responses.

The most obvious one is to say Yes or No.

Saying no is actually the tougher option and can be quite challenging; however, it is a valid, legitimate response. "Legitimate" is an intriguing word here because it acknowledges the legitimacy of both parties involved.

Then, we have the option of a Counter-offer or Negotiation.

For example, you could say, "I can't do it today, but can we schedule it for tomorrow at a specific time?" And, of course, the other person may respond with a yes, no, or a counter-offer, as long as there's clarity in the end.

Another choice is to commit to doing it later by saying, "I can't do it this week, but I'll be able to next week." It's not a negotiation; it's more of a partial no for now but a yes for later.

Even when someone walks into your office and says, "I need to discuss something," you're allowed to respond with, "I'm in the middle of something right now, but I can give you my full attention in an hour. Can we meet then?"

Then there's our personal favourite, the "Slippery promise."

So, what exactly is a slippery promise?

It refers to those vague responses we've all encountered and probably used ourselves. It's when we're uncomfortable with saying a clear yes or no, negotiating, or committing to a later time, so we respond with something like:

"Yeah, I'll get back to you later on that," and then nothing happens. Or we might say, "That's a great idea, absolutely, count me in," but we don't follow through.

Here's another example: let's talk about WhatsApp for a moment and the use of emojis. Unless there's a shared understanding of what a thumbs-up emoji means in response to a request, it can lead to confusion or get you into hot water and misunderstandings.

A thumbs-up could mean, "I'll do it," or "I got it," or "I've read your message," or a dozen other things. Without shared meaning, it can easily slip into the realm of the slippery promise.

The slippery promise can damage trust more than a straightforward no, negotiation, or commitment to a later time. It's because it breaks trust.

Trust is incredibly important in all of this.

Trust involves sincerity, competence, reliability, and involvement when we talk about the elements of requests and offers. It's not just about knowing someone and having a history with them; it's about assessing if the request is sincere, if there's competence involved and genuine engagement and involvement in the process.

Power of Words & Linguistic Acts

[Listen at approximately 34:30]

We will wrap it up here and hand it back to you with an invitation to pay attention to the words you use and to consider the following when you're making assumptions or judgments.

  • How is it serving you or not?
  • How are you making offers and requests, and,
  • more importantly, what promises (declarations) are you making?

Will you honour them, or will they fall into the realm of the slippery promise?


Our Final Thoughts

It is always lovely to have conversations that matter, and we did receive your request to do a bit more on neuroscience.

Thank You very much; we have heard you and will explore neuroscience more in our upcoming podcasts because it is something that the research on at the moment is phenomenal.

You will find the framework around the basic linguistic acts below in the Resources section to download.



Basic Linguistic Acts

Related Podcasts

  • E007 - What is conversational waste, and what can you do about it?
  • E051 - Why are the questions always more powerful than the answers?

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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