And words are all we have … to communicate with!

There is a myth which surrounds communication, that words mean the same thing to our listeners as they do to us.

I was reminded of this fact when I was conducting a training session recently. We were discussing the unseen barriers which intrude between our message and our listener. Communication starts when I have an idea in my mind which I want to pass onto you. First I have to code it, which is put it into words that translate my ideas into speech. Here is the first barrier – because when I choose my words I accept the unspoken assumption that they will mean the same thing to you as they do to me.

But in reality while words do have a defined meaning – more importantly they come loaded down with experiences and perceptions. For instance, consider the simple word “ship”. It has dictionary definition which does general purpose – but consider how we internalise it if we have just booked a cruise for our holiday, against the perception of someone in our sales department who ‘ships’ products around the globe.

Words can be divided into common or standard meanings, those which are found in dictionaries – known as Denotative parts. But the more important part is the Connotative parts, because this is where you bring you own experience and your perceptions. We can’t help it. When someone mentions the word ‘horse’, I immediately think of my last horse, Kashmir, and the sensation that brings is the feelings I experienced riding him out in the early winter mornings with the mist swirling around his legs. I can also re-experience the anguish I felt as I was forced to agree to let the vet put him down when it was apparent he could not recover from his injury. The word ‘horse’ to me is bitter sweet.

But I have a friend who has never ridden a horse in his life, and when I asked him what came to mind when I mentioned the word ‘horse’ he brought experiences, bad and good, from the race track to the word.

These examples are probably self-evident, but we have the same reaction to more abstract words which have a big impact on how we decode the words we hear. “Please do it now” seems conclusive doesn’t it? And I was raised to believe that ‘doing something now” meant at once, immediately, do not put it off and all that. However, someone who likes to prioritise their activities might interpret it to mean ‘immediately after what I am already doing’; which is fine unless you really did want it now.

While words can be checked and definitions referred to, the reality is that connotative meanings depend entirely on our experiences and our interpretations of them within the context of the message. The problem with coding our communication is that we can not be sure that our listeners will get precisely the same message from a set of words as we do.

Which is why listening skills are just as important as speaking skills, It is by listening that we can pick up the fact that our listener may not have understood what we said, the way that we intended to say it! A bit like the March Hare and Alice…

*”`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’ “

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter.

And of course he’s right!!!!

* Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – a wonderful example of connotative meanings creating havoc in interpretation.


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