Uncrossing the wires
‘I know you believe you understand what you think I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ (Alan Greenspan)
Clarity. Simple in principle, not always easy in practice. Paradoxically, a significant challenge to communication is human language. Words intended to build a bridge can so easily create a barrier. We may use the same words but mean something different things by them or use different words to mean the same thing – and very often without realising it. Linguists explain that words are connotative as well as denotive. This implies that their meaning, the associations they hold and the feelings they may evoke can shift markedly depending on context, culture, tone and relationship.
We may say something in irony. We may tell a joke with a straight face. We may make a harsh-sounding comment with a glint in our eye. We may make subtle gestures that fill in the gaps in verbal conversation. According to Transactional Analysis, we may make a statement at one level with an intention and implied meaning that’s completely different to the literal. These nuances challenge the limits of neuroscience and artificial intelligence. As social construction expert Kenneth Gergen asserts, ‘Neurobiology can tell us a lot about a blink, but nothing about a wink.’
I facilitated an astute cross-cultural group of women last week who practised skills of curiosity and inquiry. Instead of responding immediately to what they thought another person had said or meant – for example, by a statement, phrase or word – they would test their own assumptions by actively exploring that person’s intended message and meaning. It created a dynamic of interpretation based on dialogue, in contrast to an instinctive reaction to words at face value. It took time, patience, and a commitment to hear and understand. Conversations became richer and relationships grew deeper.
It's trickier in online conversations. We can find ourselves subconsciously searching hard for non-verbal cues we would ordinarily pick up when together in the same physical room – yet all we can see is head and shoulders in a 2-dimensional screen frame. This is one of the probable contributors to Zoom fatigue. If you have seen the film ‘Thirteen Days’ (2000) based on the Cuban missile crisis, it’s an extreme opposite example of trying to decode hidden messages and intentions based purely only observation of another party’s actions. It’s Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference on steroids.
What approaches, tools and techniques do you use to ensure clear communication?
(See also: Crossed Wires)
‘Words can inspire. Words can destroy. Choose your words well.’ (Peter Economy)
In English, we use an expression, ‘biting my lip’ to describe a moment when we’re yearning to say something, yet choose self-restraint. And there can be good reasons to hold back. Our words could prove hurtful or damaging…or decidedly career-limiting. Yet there are situations in which we should speak up. What if our safety filters auto-override our personal need for congruence; or the needs of a situation where our silence could be taken as tacit agreement or collusion?
What if our fears of the consequences of speaking out, for instance against some grievous injustice, allow the violation to go unchecked? What if we’re simply too shy or polite to speak out for risk of transgressing our own or others’ cultural expectations? Anti-Nazi Martin Niemöller’s words can still haunt us: ‘First they came for X, and I did not speak out because I was not an X’. It’s a silence that can leave our consciences seared and others devoid of support.
Yet we also know the amazing, positive, transformative power of words to spark the imagination, ignite a passion, set us brightly ablaze. Think of first-class orators, of Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King: of words that inspired such great conviction, commitment and courage. Words can reframe, reconstrue, change everything we think and believe is possible. Words can touch us deeply emotionally; instil confidence, engender hope, enable us to receive and convey love.
As a follower of Jesus, I love the mystery of words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, the early word, the first word, the I am who I am word, the with-God word, the was-God word. The without-whom-nothing word, an unheard-of word behind words. World-making word. Speaking the language behind language.’ Words used playfully, creatively, evocatively, provocatively can allow us to grasp and express reality, idea, concept, abstract and experience that lay beyond words.
At times, I have spoken words when I should have stayed silent and stayed silent when I should have spoken. It has felt like dancing on a knife edge; trying to weigh up pros and cons, rights and wrongs, implications and consequences, all in a split second. Sometimes, I have found myself lost for words, or I have used words clumsily or harshly without enough care for others. In seeking too hard to be more considered or diplomatic, my words have felt too weak, cautious or ineffective.
At other times, however, I have seen and felt the dazzling, dynamic influence that life-giving words can have on a person’s whole world, outlook and stance; a team’s relationships; an organisation’s effectiveness; a society’s vision and hope. I have seen how words can change…everything. I try to use words with courage, humility, creativity and love. What part do words play in your life, work and relationships? If we use words well, what becomes possible?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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