Clarify What a Word Means

“Language has history. Synonyms and alternatives abound. Myths can get in your way too, unless you’re willing to uncover them. 

Gather the following about each term: 

History: How did the term come into being? How has it changed over time?

Myths: Do people commonly misunderstand this term, its meaning, or its usage? How?

Alternatives: What are the synonyms for the term? What accidental synonyms exist?” 

Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess

Every organisation I have worked in has its own vocabulary. There are terms you need to learn that have their own meaning, their own history, as per the quote above.

Meaning can change with context too. So the same word or phrase can mean different things based on the conversation you’re in at that moment.

Abby Covert challenges us to document these terms. To create what she calls a Controlled Vocabulary. She defines this as “An organized list of terms, phrases, and concepts to help someone understand a topic or domain.”

In the process you get very clear on what a word means. You clear up ambiguity. You understand the history. You bust the myths.

The goal? 

Common understanding. Clarity of what word means, and what it does not mean within the context of that organisation.

How can we understand each other when we don’t share the same definition of a word or phrase?

“Language is complex. But language is also fundamental to understanding the direction we choose. Language is how we tell other people what we want, what we expect of them, and what we hope to accomplish together.

Without language, we can’t collaborate.”

Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Are Your Perceptions Working for You?

“Your emotional reaction is generated not by the sentences you are reading but by the way you are thinking. The moment you have a certain thought and believe it, you will experience an immediate emotional response. Your thought actually creates the emotion.”

David D. Burns M.D., Feeling Good

How we perceive the world around us, how we think about it, affects how we feel about it.

I recently completed a mindfulness course, and one of the exercises was to remember a happy thought. As I did, I smiled involuntarily.

Pay attention to how you perceive the world around you. Ask yourself if it is working for you?

If it is great.

If not, you can look into whether there are any distortions in your thinking. Correct those distortions and you’ll feel better.

For context I should point out that this is from a book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. A core part of which is paying attention to how we perceive the world around us, and whether those perceptions are valid or useful.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Look for the Master Thinkers

“You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.”

Seneca, Letters From a Stoic

I can remember where I was when I first heard this quote, walking down Blackwood St to the train station and off to work. It has stuck with me and I consider it as I choose what to read next. 

While I do not yet practice what Seneca advises, it has led me to re-read a few key books. In the re-read you get something different out of the book. You get a new level of detail. 

Of course, the books need have more substance to them. Some books are too light to warrant a second reading. And that begs the question on whether you should have picked the book in the first place.

It is also a challenge to look for the master thinkers on a topic and to read everything they have to say in that area. This is a strategy I use when selecting books for my reading list. 

I took this line of thought down into books, but I like the travel example as well. Consider who much of a place you really see when you “travel” … how could you better experience a different culture when you travel?

Featured photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash


Are you being clear on the response you want?

“When we simply express our feelings, it may not be clear to the listener what we want them to do.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Do you communicate what do you want someone to do when you are expressing your feelings?

In the book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg offers a way for us to think about how we communicate in the following four step process:

  1. Observe in as objective a manner as you can what is happening;
  2. Express how you Feel when you observe this action;
  3. Articulate your Need that is not being met (this links into yesterday’s post about compromise);
  4. Make a very specific Request of the person.

The quote below expands on that process in more detail.

First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like. Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated? And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

A second quote from the book was in my feed this morning, that makes the same point, but for groups:

“In a group, much time is wasted when speakers aren’t certain what response they’re wanting.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

I challenge you to think about what you want from the other person when you are talking to them. Can you articulate that request in a way that helps them understand how to respond to you in a meaningful way?


Avoid Compromises, Listen and be Creative

“Notice that I use the word satisfaction instead of compromise! Most attempts at resolution search for compromise, which means everybody gives something up and neither side is satisfied. NVC is different; our objective is to meet everyone’s needs fully.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

A compromise is not an ideal outcome or anyone. No one leaves the situation happy. We all had to give something up.

“To make my point on compromise, let me paint you an example: A woman wants her husband to wear black shoes with his suit. But her husband doesn’t want to; he prefers brown shoes. So what do they do? They compromise, they meet halfway. And, you guessed it, he wears one black and one brown shoe. Is this the best outcome? No! In fact, that’s the worst possible outcome. Either of the two other outcomes—black or brown—would be better than the compromise. Next time you want to compromise, remind yourself of those mismatched shoes.”

Chris Voss and Tahl Raz, Never Split the Difference

Can you use improve your ability to understand the needs of the other party?

Can you then use your creativity to find a solution that works for both of you?

“When we really, deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions and third alternatives. Our differences are no longer stumbling blocks to communication and progress. Instead, they become the stepping stones to synergy.” 

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Everything is Entangled

“All too often we hit the wall for want of a wide-angle lens. It may feel safe to focus on simple metrics, but it’s not. Obstacles, opportunities, connections, and consequences are often revealed only by seeing the bigger picture. There are no closed systems. Everything is entangled from code to culture. That’s why it’s malpractice to design a product, service, or experience without considering strategy.”

Peter Morville, Intertwingled

Let’s start with a chair. A chair sits in a room. A room in a building. A building in a city, a city in a country … you get the picture.

Let’s say that building is a house. The room is a formal dining room. Chances are the chair is a dining room chair. The home owner selected a house with a formal dining room. The type of dining room chair they pick will differ from what they may select for the kitchen.

Stay with the house. The room is a lounge. It might be an armchair. Where is this armchair going to be placed in the room? Does it recline? Is there space for it to recline?

The room is the bathroom. Could be a chair for the shower for someone who can’t stand in the shower. Why did you choose the chair you did?

Even something as simple as a chair, in a room, depends on what you want to do with that room. 

Zoom out a level, which country are you in? Here in Australia we may choose to dine on our deck more often than not, so we don’t want a formal dining room. In the UK, we may not have space and need a dining area with more flexibility.

This simple example seems obvious. However, we do not translate this simple idea into other areas. 

When implementing a new system in an organisation, what “room” does that system exist in? What purpose does it serve in that room? What rooms is it connected to? What furniture needs to move to make way for it? 

A project team will focus on the project scope as they should. 

But, someone needs to be thinking two, three, or more steps away from that project.

What are those second or third order consequences? Where is this leading you?


Travel Time

“We evolved to move slowly over the world, in sight of everything en route. It makes sense that passing time and changing surroundings share a rhythm, and that as a consequence further or more different places naturally seem longer ago. The differences between a forest and a city are so enormous that the journey between them interposes itself as a chronological jump, a kind of time-hill.”

Mark Vanhoenacker, Skyfaring

This is a book written by an airline pilot. As we fly around the world, able to get places relatively quickly, in a sense we “jump” between them.

It is interesting to think how that might be a form of time travel? How this affects our sense of what it means to travel in the world. That far away places feel different in time as well as place.

Yet, in “jumping” between cities as we fly what we we missing from the journey? You don’t see the places you are flying over …


Are You Adding Enough Detail?

“Relying on pointing also short-circuits vital deductive analysis. Forcing specific articulation increases our focus, will deliver a more detailed account, and creates a superior memory of the observation.”

Amy E. Herman, Visual Intelligence

If you have kids, you have experienced how little information is communicated by pointing.

They want you to look at something. They point off into the distance. You have no idea what they want you to see. You long for them to mention any additional detail, a colour, a shape, an object … anything that will help you know what you are looking for.

Think about where you do this yourself. Are you providing enough information for the person you are talking to to know what you mean?

It is quick and easy to point. But it conveys so little information.

All Habits Serve You, Even the Bad Ones

“The labels “good habit” and “bad habit” are slightly inaccurate. There are no good habits or bad habits. There are only effective habits. That is, effective at solving problems. All habits serve you in some way—even the bad ones—which is why you repeat them.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

The point on effective habits reminds me of a similar idea from NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), that everything we do we do for a positive reason. It might not make sense to anyone else. But we don’t tend to deliberately do things that harm us.

The example that stuck in my mind from the NLP book was smoking. Smoking is bad for your health, yes. Yet it can also be a way to fit in with a group, or to deal with anxiety, or many other reasons. To the person who smokes, they are doing it for a good reason to them. Not to us. To them.

If they do want to quit, it is important to understand what need smoking meets. Then to talk to that need and how it can be met by other positive behaviours.