Have you ever made an agreement with someone which you thought was crystal-clear, only to find them doing exactly the opposite? When you confront them, they respond with, “I didn’t mean it that way,” or, “I thought you meant something else.”
I ran into that problem a lot, and I assumed they were making up excuses. After all, words have specific meanings, right?
When I realized that everyone uses words to mean different things, and especially when I learned how to account for them, I started seeing better results in my relationships, both professional and personal.
This situation is surprisingly common: most people misinterpret, misunderstand, or simply change 70%-90% of what they hear in any given conversation. So, it’s extremely important that we make an effort to figure out what signals we’re sending and how the other person receives them.
You would expect difficulty understanding a Mongolian shepherd without taking the time to learn his language, right? So why not put a little effort into learning the “personal language” of those people you deal with regularly? Luckily, it’s not as difficult as learning Mongolian, and taking the time shows that you respect the other person enough to really understand what they’re saying, one of the most powerful ways to earn trust and support.
There are three elements I’ve identified that go into someone’s “personal language.”
When we learn words the first time, we rarely look them up. We figure them out by listening to how they are used and in what contexts. The way your parents talk (or don’t talk) about love has a massive impact on what the word means to you and how you will use it.
There are other influences as well, and as we go through life, we are constantly updating and editing our personal dictionaries.
- Our exposure to our friends expressing “love”
- Media depictions
- Which books, movies, and TV shows we interact with (voluntarily or not)
- Our own beliefs about what the world should be
My idea of “love” may be romantic fairy-tales while yours means dedicating caring.
As a result, we write and edit our own personal dictionaries, combining what we want words to mean and what we think they really mean. Depending on your priorities, you may even combine some words that others make fine distinctions between.
Obviously, you cannot account for every experience in a person’s history, but you can be aware of the fact that “money” may have a very different meaning for a person whose family clipped coupons compared to the person who went on field trips to Europe every summer.
Tip #1: Never assume someone has the same history informing their personal dictionary as you do. Pay attention to the way they use words and ask questions to get more details.
Conversational Context Matters
Besides individual definitions, the immediate context of a conversation colors the meanings we hear. I might be struggling with money on the day that you got a raise, so our conversation about the trip you’re planning to Kenya might remind me of how tight things are.
Ideally, I’m self-aware enough to realize where my reaction comes from, but I might also associate the negative feelings with you, which will color how I interpret things you say in future.
For example, I reached out to a friend while I was going through a rough spot and feeling very isolated. It was hard to do, since I was already feeling like a burden, so when he said he didn’t want to get caught up in my problem, I understood it to mean he didn’t want to help. As a result, I stopped reaching out to him until he pinned me down, asked why I’d dropped off the radar, and explained that he hadn’t meant it that way at all.
So, the context of my life at the time colored how I heard his response and how I interpreted his character. You might think that I should have asked for clarification, but from where I was standing, it sounded like a straightforward statement with no need for explanation.
Tip #2: As much as possible, make an effort to stay abreast of the events in the lives of those important to you. If you are going into an important interaction with someone you’re not familiar with, do some research.
A World Unto Yourself
Every person creates their own reality. If you believe life happens to you, you will interpret a big windfall in a totally different way than people who believes they are authors of their lives, who in turn will see it differently than people who believe they are simply a channel for the energy of the universe.
In the first case, it’s luck. In the second, it’s hard work. In the third, it’s nothing to be excited about, it’s just part of the rhythm of life.
This impacts how you respond to the event: relief, elation, pride, certainty. Of course, what your friends believe impacts how they respond: congratulations, warnings, acceptance, jealousy.
Likewise, the language we use reflects the underlying lens through which we view the world. Luck to one person might mean uncontrollable whim. To another, it might mean positive destiny. The meanings are close enough that you could overlook the distinction in a conversation, but significant enough that the two of you will be painting totally different pictures.
Tip #3. Try to understand the worldview of the people you deal with and keep it in mind when listening and talking.
* * *
Language is a reflection of how we think, and since we are all have unique experiences, we all use language differently. Sometimes, the differences are small enough that we can get by, but considering how much time and energy is wasted on making sure everyone is on the same page, imagine how much more you could get done by just taking time to understand where people are coming from. Imagine the trust and connection you could build!
One of the elements that makes leaders exceptional is using language that resonates with their supporters. You can have the most inspired idea on the planet, but if you use words that don’t trigger the right emotions, nobody will care.
On the other hand, savvy salespeople can motivate incredible action for trivial things by using carefully chosen words.
Combine the two–lofty purpose and effective language–and you have a recipe for some historically significant impact.
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Do you adjust your language to appeal to those you speak with?
(Photo credit: Steven Shorrock on flickr)