INsight/ More Than Words

Seoul, 11 January 2017 — To achieve the results we want in 2017, and move a step closer to our life goals, we need to get better at working with other people. As leaders, we communicate to influence people and learn from them. How do we make sure that our communication skills keep improving? In that quest, I met Floor de Ruiter.

Today, in his farewell speech, President Obama spoke about the need to engage with people who hold different views than we do, people outside our bubble. People with different perspectives on life. That has never been more urgent in our world, and fortunately there are tools to help us.

Let's go back thirty years in time. In 1986, Professor Clare W. Graves passed away before publishing his epistemological theory of human psychology on which he had conducted research over several decades.

Professor Clare W. Graves

Professor Clare W. Graves

A colleague of Abraham Maslow, Graves sought to to understand how human nature can achieve psychological maturity, he discovered eight systems that people use to cope with their life conditions as they grow to their full potential. 

To learn more about this theory and its application, however, the world had to wait another ten years until 1996, when it was published by Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change

One of the powerful applications of the theory is in bridging the communication perspectives of people using the different value systems (views of life) that Graves had identified. Each of these systems has its own style of communication.

Through the work of Beck and Cowan, Graves’ theory was used in nation building and conflict resolution efforts in South Africa, Palestine, and has been shared with organizations in Europe, the Middle East, Scandinavia, North America, Asia and elsewhere. 

A diagram showing the SEVEN  value systems from Graves' theory. 

A diagram showing the SEVEN  value systems from Graves' theory. 

In 2016, I studied with Floor de Ruiter and his partner Eveline de Wal of Flying Elephants in the Netherlands to learn how to apply Graves’ theory in my leadership coaching and training for individuals and businesses. My work has not been the same since. 

Helping clients to develop more insight into their preferred communication perspectives, and to connect effectively with people who use different perspectives, has proved to be an effective way for them to rapidly expand their self-awareness and improve their communications, individually and in teams. 

Floor de Ruiter

Floor de Ruiter

Throughout my learning process, Floor has been a generous and patient mentor, as we discovered our shared passion for this work. Now I am waiting for the day when his book ValueFraming is translated from Dutch into English, so that I can share his work with a wider audience in Asia and beyond.  

To underscore the importance of improving communication, I recalled my experience in organizing the CEO Roundtable at the 2nd Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Chiang Mai in 2013. To my surprise, it took the attending CEOs only 20 minutes to determine the main challenge for businesses and governments to work together effectively in projects to increase water security. Not technology, not finance, but communication.

When partners, organizations, and groups in society have different values and views of life, they will express themselves in a different language, and misunderstandings and miscommunications easily happen. To bridge these gaps, we need more than words. We need to communicate effectively with awareness of ourselves and our audience.

After Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, he studied Graves' theory and its application, assisted by Don Beck, and he became a master of communication to bridge gaps in South African society and build a new nation.

He then famously remarked that if you talk to a man in his language (the language of his view of life), that will go to his heart. To bridge the communication gap that keeps us apart from others, we need more than words.


If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
— Nelson Mandela