Before you get into this blog, grab yourself a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and have it nearby. There will be a place later for you to put it to use. 😊
A fundamental precept in communication is that when you and I are talking together, we have a shared understanding of the words that we use. In the last few months, I have experienced several small things to bring my attention the importance of the significance and meaning of the words that I use.
You, like me, may have been in conversations with others where I just know that the other one really isn’t getting it, or even caught off guard by the reactions to what I was saying. Somehow, I inadvertently stepped on a land-mine trigger of a word. It also happens in reverse where I get blindsided by something the other person said
A couple of months ago, I was in a coaching situation where I was establishing something akin to a values system. I was challenged by my coach to define words as they meant to me without looking at a dictionary, and then rank their importance to me. Well now, how hard can that be? Surprise, the response was a lot more than I thought, and I filed it in the back of my mind as a possible blog posting. One of my take aways from that experience was the emotional component, or energy, of the word that was encompassed in my definition, both things that frequently do not show up in the dictionary.
Here’s where the piece of paper comes into play. Write down the following words, and write out YOUR definition as to what they mean. Loving, compassionate, integrity, authentic, creative, beauty, accountable, courageous, focus, generous, trusting. As a friend of mine has often said in her coaching sessions, “imagine that I am from another planet; what does ‘X’ mean?” After you have written out the definitions, you might rank them in order of importance for you so that you have an idea of words, that if misunderstood or misaligned on definition, could have a higher trigger for you.
Now imagine that you are having a conversation with a good friend / spouse / colleague. Both of you are using similar words. Do you REALLY know what the other person is saying? Do both of you have the same definition or understanding of the words that are being used?
For the sake of this discussion, let’s imagine you are having a conversation with a colleague about your boss and in the course of the conversation you say, “our boss lacks integrity.“ (you are thinking because he doesn’t always tell the whole truth about things.) Your colleague looks at you and says, “I don’t agree with that, I think our boss is in high integrity.” (She is thinking he always does what is best for himself). You say, “and furthermore, I don’t experience him as very accountable.” (you are thinking he never does anything.) Your colleague responds with “hmmm, I’ve seen him take responsibility in manager meetings when someone on his team dropped the ball.” At this point, you may be ready to bear arms to make your point that your boss ranks right up there as a scoundrel, and can’t your colleague see this? You may also simply walk away wondering if you were just in a conversation with the office suck-up that you failed to previously identify.
When Robert McCloskey was the spokesperson for the State Department, he is purported to have made the following quote during a briefing on the Viet Nam war. “I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” How many conversations have an element of this underneath them? How many times have I heard something from someone else, and presumed that they mean the same thing that I do when they say it? How many times has my perception of a word colored the take away from the conversation? How many times have I over-reacted simply because we were not aligned on the understanding of what a word meant? (Of course, you may use the “I” for yourself; I’m sure I’m not the only one.)
Here are a couple more examples of where the energetic mis-alignment can make a difference. Imagine you are in a relationship and in your frustration you utter “you don’t love me!” You of course, are looking for all of the times that your partner has actually spoken the “I love you” words to you. On the other hand, your partner comes from the understanding that talk is cheap and it is the things that one does that matters. Your partner thinks, “gee, what about when I stopped at the store and bought you flowers for no reason?’ Or “how about all of the times that I rubbed your back when you got home and were all stressed out? Or …. So, does your partner really not love you, or do you have different meanings and perceptions about what love is?
As a coach, there are opportunities to listen carefully to someone’s language and unhook a strong reaction to a situation simply by asking and what does the word “X” mean to you? I had this reinforced last week as I was participating in a dreamwork group, and saw again the power of asking a question like that. One person was relaying a dream in which she used the term “son” in her narrative. One of my colleagues asked a brilliant question, “what does ‘son’ mean?” The dreamer sat there for a few moments before she could speak, and she said with tears in her eyes “he means the world to me.” This brought a much deeper meaning to the dream than was there before. Another dreamer related a simple narrative about driving down the street and turning left. She was asked, “what does ‘left’ mean to you?” and it made her excited to realize that she had been doing things in a way that were not true to her. She is more of a creative, and for her, the hit was that she had been trying to do things in a more left-brained, linear way, rather than a right-brain way. There is no way that, I, on my own, would have understood the dreamers to mean those deeper things in simple conversation.
I find that as I have been evolving, I can more be in the space of recognizing my discomfort with what a person has said, and approach it more openly. I have been building the muscle of communicating when someone says something that smarts for me. Now I am upping the ante so that when I get triggered, I can ask “what do you mean by that” rather than just silently (or not so silently) react.
Just for fun, take the words listed above and ask someone close to you to write out their definitions, then compare the lists. Any surprises?
BB is a coach who supports people in finding the connection to their Inner Wisdom. This connection is one of the many tools that can be used to live a more purposeful, soul-aligned life.