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Are We Really Speaking about the Same Thing?

shared meaning 2How often have you felt frustrated in conversations as if you were each talking about a different thing? That’s because you were…

To experience truly effective communication, which rarely occurs, we need to make sure we’re actually talking about the same thing. If you assume that the words or phrases you’re using mean the same thing to both of  you, you’re making a mistake – I can assure you. Establishing a shared meaning is essential to have a coherent conversation.

Coherent communication doesn’t require agreement, but simply a shared meaning. We need to know that we are, in fact, talking about the same thing. How often do we pause and thoughtfully ask the other person what he means by the word or words he is using? As I was walking by a restaurant near my home one day and saw a parking attendant with whom I was acquainted, I asked, “How are you?” He smiled and said, “I can’t complain.”

As I continued my walk, a thought occurred to me: he might have meant either that he had nothing to complain about or that he literally wasn’t giving himself permission to complain. On my return home, I ran into him again and genuinely inquired which meaning I should construe. It took quite some time for him to admit that he believed that no one would care to listen to his complaints, so he wouldn’t bother. “I can’t complain” was now clear to me. I explained to him that when I ask, I truly do care and perhaps he might make an exception to his rule. Typically, I wouldn’t have inquired and never would have come to know this side of him.

To pause and ask people what they meant by the words they’ve just spoken is remarkably respectful. Respect comes from the Latin respecere, which means “to look again.” That is precisely what shared meaning demands – looking again at what the other intends in his or her articulation. We need to check in and confirm that we are on the same page. Read more

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Shared Meaning

We take for granted that our words convey exactly what we intend them to. This is a particularly misinformed assumption. I have observed that upon deeper scrutiny, the words, let alone the concepts, tend not to be received in the way the messenger anticipates. By the time a few sentences have passed, we may have a totally missed communication. How often do we pause and considerately ask the other what they mean by the word they are using?

Although this problem is more glaring in confrontational discourse, it impacts amicable conversations as well. “You don’t know how to be intimate,” she exclaims. He retorts, “I don’t know how to be intimate? You’re so angry and cold who would ever want to be intimate with you?” In the following minutes this couple is off to the races, pushing buttons and hurling invective. Read more

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