Words matter, but so does understanding them

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I’ve been fortunate to learn from many people who understand the power that words can carry. Many have been pastors, some have been social justice activists, several have been political leaders. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that more and more people are focused on the words we use and how they can inspire, hurt or incite. I think it is good for our society to become more careful with the words we use and better understand the power they can have, for good or ill.

A big issue I see, however, is how sloppy and reckless many seem to be on the other side of the coin. I’m referring to the meaning listeners make from people’s words. It seems to me that we should be every bit as careful in the meaning we make from others’ words as we are with the words we choose to use.

What does it look like to be reckless with our words? To choose words that feel good, and even right, in the moment without questioning how they will be received by a myriad of people. I might be able to refer to certain people types with no issues for most of the population, but they could cause significant issues for the few about which I’m referring. I should think about that and choose words and phrases that will communicate my message without causing pain, anger or misunderstanding.

What does it look like to be reckless in the meaning we make of others’ words? Well, there are several ways this happens. One is to jump to conclusions before the person is even done talking. Are you already jumping ahead to what I’m communicating in this short piece? You might be thinking, “I know people like Rodger and what he’s about to say,” and then, often without even thinking, reflexively twist my words to match your assumptions. This is reckless and, in my observation of a great many people, very common, especially when you start to listen to the words of politicians and those that report on political matters. (Think: CNN and FOX News.)

Another way of being reckless in the meaning we make of others’ words is to listen well and, even if we don’t jump to conclusions, assume we understood the person’s intended meaning. When they say, “Does that make sense?” and I respond, “Yes, it makes total sense,” that doesn’t mean I’m understanding the sense they were intending. My experience has been that both people’s statements might be true, but the sense they both make may not match.

It turns out that true communication is tricky (which, ironically, is also true in what I’m trying to communicate through these words). In our LEAD 24/7 class we talk about how challenging truly effective communication is. Two examples that show how important it is stick in my mind. The first is when you hear people describe great athletic coaches, political leaders, or even business leaders, it’s not uncommon for them to say what makes them so successful is they are great communicators. Effective communication is that powerful.

The other is when I’ve heard marriage experts say the first thing that starts to break down a marriage is when the two partners no longer communicate well. Again, communication, or the lack of it, carries great impact and power.

So, for West Michigan leaders to be highly effective communicators, we have to choose our words carefully and also check the meaning of what’s being said, especially when something someone says surprises us, or offends us, or incites us. First make sure you’re drawing the accurate meaning of their statements.

The best way to test if the meaning I’m making from someone’s words is accurate is to paraphrase back to them what I hear them saying. This is such a good practice that we also teach leaders to ask the people they’re leading to share what they heard, what meaning they made out of important messages.

This is hard for busy executives. However, doing it pays two huge dividends: it greatly improves relationships (people feel great about being understood) and much better decisions are made from the accurate understanding of what was being said.

If we were talking together, in two-way communication (which has much higher potential for accurate understanding), I would ask you what you think I’m trying to say. Depending on your response, I would agree or try to communicate my message again, maybe in a different way.

But we’re not talking together so I can only hope that you’re catching my meaning through these written words. I also hope you find them helpful as you work to be a person worth following in West Michigan!

Rodger Price is the founder and managing partner of Leading by DESIGN, an executive development firm in Grand Rapids.

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