How not to confuse

Mandy & Elisabet speaking at WeAreTheCity conference in London

Words matter. A lot.

And it’s important to communicate in such a way that we can reach and connect with other people, right? Of course. We all want to be understood the way we intended.

And yet, we can so easily misunderstand each other, as we all interpret words, sentences and even situations differently. We all have different lenses through which we observe and make sense of the world. And those lenses are made up by our unique experience; the challenges and opportunities we’ve faced, the insights we’ve had, the people we’ve met.

Organisational jargon, abbreviations and acronyms may work fine if it is all internal communication and the jargon is shared.

But as soon as it leaks outside of the internal understanding, it’s so easy to exclude and alienate those who are not part of the cultural lingo.

Yes, in a highly interconnected world, our ability to communicate with others is definitely one to focus on and keep developing, to ensure we are truly understood the way we intended to, regardless the audience.

“There is no communication that is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood.”

Luigina Sgarro

The challenge with ‘suitcase words’

‘Suitcase words’ can be a great communicative tool, as they can include and convey so much, but that’s also the reason why they should be used with care.

They are BIG words that could contain/mean all sorts of things – they don’t just have one clear meaning.

They are like a suitcase that can be filled up with a myriad of items.

Here are a few examples:

  • Leadership
  • Intelligence
  • Digital
  • Value
  • Right
  • Wrong

If you look at those words, can you straight away say what they mean through a crisp, clear definition? Probably not. And even if you think you could, would those definitions match everyone else’s? Definitely not. If you also add international interactions and cultural differences into the mix, it becomes even more obvious that definitions and interpretations will vary.

And we can see that they may also be part of our internal jargon, with our unique interpretation and use of those words.

And yet we often use these words expecting them to make sense to others. So, next time you use a ‘suitcase word’, think through what it means to you and what it is you want to convey to others. Your idea of “right” and “wrong” could be completely different to the other person’s, for example.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

John Keating

The power of ‘suitcase words’

There are also times when ‘suitcase words’ can be very powerful and useful.

When you don’t want to give someone all the answers, but want them to explore a subject further, using their own creativity and interpretation, then these words are great on their own, without further definition. They can ignite excellent dialogues and new insights.

One such example which we recently observed was when a team wanted to think about ways they could bring real value to the company, so they decided to brainstorm what value could mean beyond what they were already doing.

Here are just a few of the ways they identified they could bring more value:

  • Ask their stakeholders what their needs are – and what value means to them
  • Be proactive in sharing knowledge and ideas
  • Be active participants in conference calls and meetings
  • Review work practices to identify overlaps and unnecessary rework

And by going through that process of ‘suitcase word’ exploration, they were able to go beyond assumptions of what value was and benefit from the collective intelligence of the whole team to add more value than before.

What are your thoughts on jargon and ‘suitcase words’? How much do you use them? When is it helpful and when not? And do you have a favourite ‘suitcase word’ – and if so, what does it mean to you? And what does it mean to those you communicate that suitcase word to? Could you be at risk of being misunderstood?

Author: Mandy and Elisabet

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