Main point: Words and phrases have different meanings for different people and as a result, our conversations will suffer if we assume both speaker and listener are thinking of the same thing even when they are using the same word. Some ideas for avoiding, noticing, and correcting such misunderstandings are included.
Quotes from old movies don’t become new Internet memes unless they address a common experience–often a irritation. Throughout the 1987 comedy, The Princess Bride, one hapless sidekick used inconceivable to describe every event. The lead character, Inigo Montoya, finally remarked: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Two decades after Montoya spoke those words, Internet posters picked up the phrase as a humorous shorthand way to question the use of specific words.
Different meanings crop up nearly continuously in all but our simplest conversations. For example, consider:
- “I never want to change others.”
- “Using force isn’t a good way to achieve our goals.”
Those statements were spoken at a weekend conference I recently attended, which was billed as a series of “participant-driven dialogues.” The full weekend of nonstop conversation provided plenty of examples of effective conversation skills, but both those statements led to unsatisfactory exchanges. In each case, the key words held a slightly different meaning for the speaker and the listener.
But the different meanings weren’t the problem. The problems occurred because the participants resisted clarification.
The person who said, “I never want to change others,” might have meant that he wanted to avoid manipulating people, or that he wanted to let others be wholly themselves, unaffected by his presence. It was unclear from the context he supplied. When a listener interrupted to ask him to clarify, he responded with only, “Let me finish,” and went on talking.
As a witness to this exchange, I was startled and distracted. What did the speaker think he was accomplishing by continuing to talk while not being understood? Was his intention limited to mere self-expression, not communication? Whatever his intent, his curt imperative, “Let me finish,” had the effect of driving both me and questioner out of the conversation. As I started to wonder why the speaker declined to clarify, I too stopped following what the speaker was saying.
Skillful conversationalists remain continuously aware that words and phrases may have unique meaning for each person. Open the dictionary or thesaurus to any word—particularly an intangible like ‘change’ or ‘force’—and you’ll find a long list of possible meanings. Verbal misunderstandings provide grist for thousands of jokes: Mom sends young Johnny to check on their frail elderly neighbor: “Go find out how old Mrs. Johnson is,” and Johnny returns with, “She says it’s none of your business how old she is.”
The consequences can also be tragic, as when a social worker returned an injured child to his parents after being told by a physician to “rule out child abuse.” In medical-speak, that phrase means “investigate to make sure it’s not child abuse before you suspect any other cause.” The social worker, however, understood the physician’s instruction to mean, “Don’t even consider child abuse; that’s not the problem.” The child died.
In the second example from the weekend conference, the participants were clumsier than those in the first. Upon hearing “Using force isn’t a good way to achieve our goals” as if it meant “We should never do anything more assertive than ask politely for what we want,” one listener challenged the speaker (me): “No, force is useful. Labor unions need to be willing to use force to get their goals.”
Instead of pausing to resolve his misunderstanding, I tried to dismiss it quickly. “You and I seem to be thinking about slightly different things when we say force,” I said, and went right back to making my point: giving an opponent no options in the resolution of a dispute will prolong hostilities even if the immediate goal is won.
Basic knowledge of standard human behavior should have enabled me to predict what came next. Now intent on pressing the point I’d brushed off, my challenger increased his insistence on correcting my statement. I tried one more time to help him realize he was arguing against a meaning that he, not I, had supplied. But my initial dismissive reaction had raised his hackles and closed his ears. For the sake of other listeners, I soon gave up, because no one enjoys listening while others talk past each other.
Blogger Michael Webb has written that one of the “trickiest barriers” to effective conversation is “a misplaced trust in the precision of words.”
It is naive to assume, he wrote, “that words themselves contain absolute meaning. If the listener hasn’t had the experience the speaker is using the word to point at, then the word points at nothing. Worse, the listener may quietly substitute a different experience to match the word.”
So what do we do about it?
Skillful speakers watch their listeners for signs of incomprehension, and might pause to ask for feedback: “Is this making sense?”
Skillful listeners will first try to discern the speaker’s meaning from context. If that doesn’t work, they interrupt briefly to ask for clarification: “By change, do you mean manipulate, or do you mean something else?”
If a listener asks for clarification, a skillful speaker does not respond as if he or she has been rudely interrupted, but takes the request as the sincere compliment that it is: The listener is demonstrating an active desire to receive the speaker’s message exactly as the speaker intends it.
Regardless of whether a listener asks for clarification or says something that reveals he or she misunderstood an intended meaning, a skillful speaker will not merely brush the remark off as I did, but will pause and try to find a helpful way to clarify.
Finally, when both speaker and listener realize they hold different meanings for the same word or phrase, neither should assert that one is right and the other wrong—even if a dictionary would confirm that. Unless the explicit topic of conversation is the meaning of the word, starting and resolving an argument about the dictionary definition is just a distraction. The important thing is that they understand each other within the immediate conversation.
Both should work to understand the referent of the word the other is using (e.g., “When you used force in that sentence, were you thinking of something more like assertiveness, or more like coercion?”) or agree on a label for the thing that they are both referring to (e.g., “When we mean ‘trying to change someone in a deliberate, stealthy way’, let’s use the word manipulate.”)