Is the Power in the Words? (and how do you describe an elephant if it isn't?)
Do the Words Matter?
A friend posted a question in one of our coaching communities asking what we all understood by a commonly used word. She’d seen it being used in a certain way and wanted to bring it back to the dictionary definition.
I was less interested in our understanding of the word (that’s an interesting, although separate conversation) than I was in how much it mattered that we had an agreed-upon definition. For a while now, I’ve observed myself moving further and further away from words having any meaning whatsoever.
And, I can also find myself at the other end of this pendulum.
The Power of Words…
Of course words matter; we’re in a conversation — a dialogue — and how can we agree or communicate unless we have a common language for that dialogue?
How can I expect you to read this unless you and I have a shared language, a shared understanding of what these words mean?
I get it. Totally. I’ve heard it argued, and hear myself agreeing, that words matter in the written form more than they do in other forms. Video, audio, and in person experiences give us more of a sense of the person. Well, yes, assuming we’re open and listening.
I find myself a lot these days holding two, seemingly opposing positions to be true at the same time and this one about language is yet another example.
Do the words matter? Or our intention with using them? And which comes first, the understanding or the words?
As a writer, we see people who have an affinity for words, people who can craft a captivating story, and even people who can create great headlines, doing well in the world. The person who can’t write that well probably won’t sell a lot of books.
I have one mentor who is an amazing woman. Just to be in her presence is like being wrapped in a huge blanket of wisdom. She’s written a couple of books and they’re nice, they’re a reminder for me of her but the actual words are a bit stilted, they don’t flow, she doesn’t have a mastery of the form.
…But They Don’t Necessarily Transform
I have another mentor who writes beautifully. I can be captivated by his words; they can take me somewhere where I feel open to new insights. And yet I can also find myself so attached to his words that I find myself reading them to see more about the words, than reading them for my own personal insights.
One isn’t right or wrong or better than the other. Both people are amazing teachers and I’ve learned a lot from each of them. But in both cases, I can be sure that my biggest shifts have come when I pay less attention to the words.
Words Start Wars…
My Facebook friend (and others chimed in, of course, as is the way with Facebook) talked about words being a common ground for communication, and how arguments, wars even, can come from misunderstandings and disagreements about words.
It looks to me, though, as if the disagreement doesn’t come from the words, it comes before the words. It comes from the closed-ness with which we hold to our own positions, our unwillingness to understand and be understood.
(and me too by the way. I find myself in situations all the time where I think I’m right and someone else is wrong. In my more enlightened moments I notice, and I stop. In my less enlightened moments not so much. Oh well…)
Seeking a Shared Understanding
A week or so ago I had a conversation with a non-English speaking friend. She asked me about the word ‘resolve’. She’d come across it in a video training and wasn’t quite sure what the trainer meant. I asked a few questions about context and then we talked about related words: promise, decide, commit, and looked at the difference between them, how strong a commitment one implies rather than another.
The word ‘resolution’ like ‘New Year’s resolution’ comes from the same root as resolve. Does that help illuminate the difference? I asked her.
As we talked, it made sense to her and she could see what the trainer was pointing to.
In this example, it looks as if I’m sharing with my friend the dictionary definition of the word resolve. I didn’t bring up an online dictionary as we talked, but I could have done.
However, what’s subtly different is that we used the conversation to share our separate understandings about a word and try to get closer to a shared understanding; a common ground.
Versus Convincing with Dogma
This is very different to her (or me) coming to the conversation with a definition that looks true to us, and then brow-beating the other person into agreement. That’s then your dogma versus my dogma. Arguing about meanings looks more like trying to make one person right or wrong: my rightness and your wrongness usually. And me wanting to change you.
Brexit means Brexit!
…has been the butt of many jokes here in the UK for well over a year.
‘Brexit’ means something, or at least we can create a meaning, but we, the people, and our political leaders, have no idea what that meaning is — and no appetite to seek out a shared understanding apparently.
Are Words a Mechanism? Or an Object?
The way it looks to me (and I make no claim on this to be the truth), is that words are a mechanism that helps us put shape to our experiences, create a shared shape, and have an experience of sharing what we see.
I don’t see words as the object we are describing — although they could be — but again the sense of seeking a shared understanding has a very different feeling than bashing someone over their metaphorical head with our understanding. Words, like paint colours in art, are there to express something, not to be seen for themselves.
The words are not as important as we think. When we find a perspective that we both understand, then we will find the words that reveal that we are talking about the same thing. Like trying to describe the colour blue, how can we do that without knowing what blue looks like?
Or, something “large and grey” could be an elephant to one person, a rock to another and a donkey to someone else.
If we want to share that we are seeing, we need more than words, we need to feel what it is we’re talking about, we need to offer and then listen.
It’s OK (with me) to Have Different Words for the Same Thing
In this article, I talked about wisdom. The word means something to me but I also know that you might have another word for the same thing: experience, intuition, common sense, knowing, sagacity, perspicacity, street smarts, judgement…
I often ask my clients what word they have for the ‘thing’ we’re talking about. I don’t mind if we talk about wisdom or common sense if we can then go on to have a discussion about what it is we’re talking about, so that we can get closer to a shared understanding, and to point out characteristics we might not have seen on our own.
It’s hard and cold,
…might take us closer to the large grey thing being a rock (or a dead elephant perhaps, shot by poachers) than a living, warm, furry donkey.
What Game are We Playing?
When my game looks real, it looks to me too as if words are important. If my pan’s boiling over I might shout at you to move it. If you understand my words you might act faster than if you don’t. But that only holds true in the moments (and there are many of them!) where my objective is to do something, to create form in the world — a nicely cooked meal without burning the sauce.
I can spend all of my time in these ‘life games’, throwing myself into whatever I’m doing. And, of course, communication, and words, take on the same function as rules when I’m in the game; they’re a shortcut to getting on with the game — like understanding the rules of cricket. Well, maybe not cricket, maybe the rules of football.
As long as it looks true to me that I can be immersed in the game of life all day long, and I can also have enough perspective to step out of it, then it doesn’t look important for us to agree on the rules. Like introducing a new rule in football, we will start with no understanding and we will develop a shared understanding so that we can move faster on the pitch.
We agree the words once we know what we’re talking about, rather than creating, or bending words and imposing our meaning on each other.
If the connection between us is good, we’ll find the words. If it isn’t, then we risk disagreement.
The words matter, of course they do, and yet they don’t matter at all.
The power is not in the words; they are a beautiful plaything, but it’s what we are creating with those words that is where the meaning—and the power to transform—takes shape.
But then, as with everything, it depends what game you’re playing.