When I was a kid, I really wanted to learn to play the piano. Weird, huh? Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford it, and the apartment was too small for one anyway. So when my youngest daughter decided she wanted to take lessons, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait for her to become good enough to enjoy the music more than she dreaded the practice. That was three years ago when she was 10. Luckily, she was persistent – and I was patient. Now when she sits down to play, I stop whatever I’m doing to listen.
What Do You Mean, Dad?
The other day, she was playing something very moving, and I told her that when she plays, it makes my heart soar. She looked surprised and asked me, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” I couldn’t believe the question, and I quickly assured her it was very good. “Then why does it hurt your heart?” she asked. That’s when I realized she thought I said her playing made my heart “sore.”
It was a vivid reminder of a lesson I learned years ago from my communication mentor, David Berlo – Meanings are in people, not in words or symbols. That lesson is obvious when it comes to homonyms like “sore” and “soar,” but it’s more subtle and complex in other forms of communication, and professional communicators need to be highly sensitive to all of its nuances in everything we do.
Align People’s Meanings – Inside and Out
That sensitivity is especially vital when it comes to aligning the meanings that people inside and outside the organization have for the words and symbols that organizations use to communicate. It’s common practice to do focus groups with customers to test promotional messages for interpretation and impact before rolling out a big advertising campaign. However, you rarely see the same attention given to assessing how employees inside the organization interpret those promotional words and symbols. What’s more, the implications are seldom considered for how employees need to perform in order to deliver on the promises being made in the marketplace.
Inside or out, with one person or many, here are some guidelines to help you avoid the “meanings trap”. . .
- Don’t ask what a word means – because IT doesn’t mean anything. Instead, ask what people mean by the words they use.
- Don’t assume people know what you mean when you tell them something or send out a message. Check to make sure they’ve interpreted it the way it was intended.
- Don’t ask people if they understand what you mean if you want to make sure they understand something important. Ask them to repeat what you’ve said until you’re satisfied you share the same meaning.
- Don’t expect to find common ground in a debate about the meaning of a word, but rather in a conversation committed to a common understanding of what is meant by the people using it. As the famed communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, once said, “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”
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