Mel Schwartz, LCSW

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.

They are arguing around this word intimate. Yet, no one has bothered to share or inquire what the word intimate suggests. She might be referring to emotional intimacy, he might be thinking of sexual intimacy. This is a common disconnect. Yet the problem runs deeper. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are fighting about whether he can or cannot be emotionally intimate. Have they ever discussed the concept of emotional intimacy and reached a shared meaning? This would be most unlikely.

How can we discuss or argue the virtues of something when we are speaking differing languages? When we seek to learn a new language, we must first understand what the word means when it is translated into our native language. That said the subtleties and nuances might still be different so we need to come to appreciate these differences to communicate well. Yet, we don’t bother to discern those more subtle differences when we both speak the same language. We assume the words have the same meaning for each of us. They ordinarily don’t.

The Art of Coherent Communication

Let’s move this couple into the art of coherent communicating. His more proper response to her accusation might be to inquire as to what she means by the word intimate. This would require that his button not be pushed in a reactive and defensive manner but that he acts in a balanced and sensible way. After all, his partner is upset with him. Why not find out what is truly troubling her? If he doesn’t fully appreciate what she is feeling and trying to communicate, how can they ever move to resolving the emotional upset? So in this instance, he might elect not to be right and prove her wrong and try to comprehend what is stirring her upset. A more educated response might sound like, “Yikes, that feels hurtful. Please tell me what you mean by intimate and how you feel I’m failing you?” That response might actually foster a generative discussion instead of breaking down into yet another meaningless argument.

Of course, the problem lies with her as well as with him. He’d have to be very far along in his shared meaning and dialogue education to be able to reflectively inquire as to her meaning rather than simply react. To further the possibility of meaningful conversation she might have begun with: “I’m really feeling sad and shut down that you don’t share your more private thoughts and feelings with me. I feel like we’re strangers just going through life together but not really connecting. Do you feel that same about me?”

Imagine how differently that conversation might flow.

Language only represents thoughts, beliefs and experiences, and should not be taken as a literal and objective fact. The word doesn’t mean the same thing to all of us. In fact, it ordinarily evokes differing connotations based upon each individual’s experiences. We often end up in disagreements without clarifying what it is that we’re arguing about. Just consider the confusion around the word love. One person says to the other, “I love you.” The other responds, “No you don’t.” Are they speaking of loving one another or being in love, the more romantic affect? Is anyone clarifying?

Numerous Words for Love

In the Greek language there are numerous words for love. The Greeks clearly appreciate the myriad nuances to this word. We need to take the time to illuminate and appreciate what the other truly means by the word. What sense does it make to argue about whether you are intimate or loving if we’re talking about two different things? We must look beyond the word — the label — and find shared meaning in our communications.

When we ask one another what the word or concept means we are in fact being very intimate and respectful. Taking the time to inquire as to what the other is truly intending to communicate honors the exchange. Sharing meaning is a precursor to an intimate exchange and opens the doorway to genuine dialogue.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book–A Shift of Mind

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Gerald kagan

Are u doing any classes this winter?


I just wanted to comment and say that I really enjoyed reading your blog post here. It was very informative and I also digg the way you write! Keep it up and I’ll be back to read more in the future

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