Humpty Dumpty definitions and what you can do about them

Why can’t people just say what they mean? Ambiguity and confusion, resulting in wasted effort, frayed tempers, and increased costs, are common in all business environments.
Misunderstandings can be bad enough when you’re face-to-face with colleagues – but the problem gets even worse when technological, linguistic and cultural communication barriers are added to the mix.
If you have a sense that everyone you talk to has a different understanding of the crucial definitions or terms on your project – you’re right!
Language is a wonderfully flexible tool. But its very flexibility leads to problems: everyone thinks they’re like Humpty Dumpty, and can use words to mean whatever they choose them to mean!
For example, if you ask two people to think of a tree, then check the details of the tree they thought of, you’ll discover that no two people’s trees are ever exactly the same. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong – it’s just that they are different.
And the more novel or complex the topic, the greater the scope for differences of meaning.
When it’s your job to sort out these differences, to achieve a consensus of meaning, then here’s an X-Ray Listening tip. Make extra time to listen, carefully, to the words each person uses to define the term at issue. If you’re taking notes (particularly notes they can see, such as on a whiteboard), write down their actual words. And when you ask clarifying questions, use those words in your questions.
People’s words are important to them and again, contain nuances of meaning that are specific to each individual. Using a person’s own words back to them helps them to feel heard and respected.
And once they know that they’ve been heard, they’ll be in a better frame of mind to listen themselves. They’ll take more notice of what others have to say – and ultimately, more likely to agree to your proposal for a new, consensus definition.
This issue was at the heart of a 90-minute training session I shared with my new “phone mastermind group” last night. Many thanks to the participants – and to the others who volunteered following my last newsletter, but could not be included this time. This training is something I’ve delivered many times with face-to-face groups – now I’ve demonstrated that it can work well with a small group on the phone. If your company might find this valuable, please get in touch for a no-obligation discussion – call +44(0)7979 495509 or email info@xraylistening.com

Why can’t people just say what they mean? Ambiguity and confusion, resulting in wasted effort, frayed tempers, and increased costs, are common in all business environments.

Misunderstandings can be bad enough when you’re face-to-face with colleagues – but the problem gets even worse when technological, linguistic and cultural communication barriers are added to the mix.

If you have a sense that everyone you talk to has a different understanding of the crucial definitions or terms on your project – you’re right!

Language is a wonderfully flexible tool. But its very flexibility leads to problems: everyone thinks they’re like Humpty Dumpty, and can use words to mean whatever they choose them to mean!

For example, if you ask two people to think of a tree, then check the details of the tree they thought of, you’ll discover that no two people’s trees are ever exactly the same. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong – it’s just that they are different.

And the more novel or complex the topic, the greater the scope for differences of meaning.

When it’s your job to sort out these differences, to achieve a consensus of meaning, then here’s an X-Ray Listening tip. Make extra time to listen, carefully, to the words each person uses to define the term at issue. If you’re taking notes (particularly notes they can see, such as on a whiteboard), write down their actual words. And when you ask clarifying questions, use those words in your questions.

People’s words are important to them and again, contain nuances of meaning that are specific to each individual. Using a person’s own words back to them helps them to feel heard and respected.

And once they know that they’ve been heard, they’ll be in a better frame of mind to listen themselves. They’ll take more notice of what others have to say – and ultimately, more likely to agree to your proposal for a new, consensus definition.

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