The Power of Words

In a recent workshop, I was reminded of the importance of words in the communication process. I have been paying close attention to what people say and what others hear them say, or think they hear them say. I’ve noticed how little time interdependent human beings spend really listening and trying to truly understand another person’s perspective. I have grown to appreciate the fact that everyone sees things through their own lens and, therefore, has a different perspective. At the same time, this appreciation leads to frustration when I see others who, for whatever reason, seem not to appreciate the different perspectives.

In the workshop, the participants were discussing the different meanings for the word facilitation. We heard several different perspectives from being a master of ceremony for a meeting to making certain the dominate person in the group is controlled to the “official” meaning of facilitation, which is to design and manage the structures and processes that will help a group be more effective and achieve a degree of togetherness. We spent significant time in exploring these meanings and being very clear about the meaning that would be used in the workshop. We even had some concerns about the word “manage” in the official definition. While some may have found this experience difficult to tolerate, I believe it was critical to the end result of a common understanding of the word “facilitation”.

As I reflect on that experience, and many others like it, I am aware of my growing concern over my intolerance for taking time to really explore meaning and, most importantly, understanding. In meetings every day, I find the dominate desire is to become more efficient so that we can get more done. I find that many times we are really just reporting on what we have been doing. As a result the group members are at various levels of engagement. And because the agenda is filled with multiple priorities we don’t take the time to explore in depth the meaning that is needed for common understanding. Even writing about this feeds my intolerance.

Every day I hear people talk about the need for better communications. However, I don’t experience many people willing to take the time to work at this improvement. In the workshop, I shared some group ground rules or guidelines that were developed by Roger Schwarz and covered in his book The Skilled Facilitator. Several of these guidelines or ground rules relate directly to this communication issue.

The first ground rule, test assumptions and inferences, speaks to how we take much for granted. When communicating with others we often assume things about the conversation that may or may not be accurate. We often draw conclusions based on what we know about what we are hearing. If we don’t take the time to check out these assumptions and inferences we may be heading to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Not testing these assumptions and inferences causes us to rush forward believing that we fully understand what the other person meant or intended.

Another ground rule, use specific examples and agree on what important words mean, is another one that directly relates to the importance of words. However, it takes time to use examples that demonstrate the meaning of the words or the situation. It also takes time to make certain people understand what the word means and how it is to be used in the situation. This is why we took some time to really explore and understand “facilitation”. We had to make certain everyone was truly understanding what we meant by the word before we could demonstrate the application of it.

These ground rules or guidelines are just two examples that emphasis the importance of spending time to really understand one another. They demonstrate the impact that words can have on a situation. So the next time you hear someone use a word that may have multiple meanings, don’t be afraid to stop the conversation long enough to explore what the person means by the word. This could result in better communication and a more effective outcome.

Until next time, become aware of how people communicate, or actually don’t communicate, and commit to clarifying the words used.