Words With Baggage
May 15, 2012
While facilitating a workshop on vendor/project management with a client yesterday, I felt compelled to emphasize that one of the keys to communication between two parties (say, client project manager –> vendor project manager) is realizing that words carry baggage. And I do not speak of “baggage” here pejoratively, as we often do, but simply descriptively.
There is the dictionary definition of a word or phrase. Then, there is the meaning and significance embedded in our minds, which is attached to an (accurate or not) personal definition, past experiences, images, people, issues, etc.
These meanings may have quite a bit of emotional freight, or conceptual misunderstanding, attached to them. So in dealing with project management, NEVER assume that everyone understands words the same way. Define. Discuss. Put it in writing. Do not leave it in the verbal ether, and discover 3 weeks down the road that even though it sounded like there was agreement when words were spoken – there clearly wasn’t (as the project begins to go off the rails).
We all want to assume that people think the way we do, and know what we mean. But if you sit 5 people down in a room and throw out a word or phrase, you may be the surprised at the variety of meanings – and reactions – that come back.
Over lunch with my boys this past Sunday, I threw out a hot-button word in our society and we had a rich discussion around what it does and doesn’t mean. The hardest part isn’t the ability to go to Dictionary.com and look up an explanation. And while there is a skill and art form to applying logic, that also isn’t the most difficult element (as important as it is). The real challenge is the emotional intelligence to grasp that words can have meaning way beyond those aspects of sheer accuracy.
Some words set off a cascade of reactions because of the baggage that travels with them. Miscommunication can result even when we think we’re being clear. And one of the dangers of social media is that we’re forced to use a paucity of words, often without supporting context. Throw in a polarizing political climate and the mix can be quite volatile.
I love the communication that is enabled through digital networks, though not as much as the face-to-face version. But sometimes, I fear that when we think we’re playing Words With Friends, we forget that we are using Words With Baggage.
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