Working With Words

scrabble-tiles-word-1Have you ever noticed how often arguments are started simply because of words?

A former school teacher of mine once told the class a story that illustrates the power of words, their meanings and our interpretation of them. He explained to the class that whenever he is asked to give a student a reference, he always replies with the same sentence; “You will be very lucky if you get _____ to work for you.”


Language is a funny thing. Words are powerful and are our primary way of communicating with one another, but they, like most inventions, are not perfect and carry unintended consequences.

Language and vocabulary are inventions — things created and assigned a meaning. Their power comes from the fact cultures attempt to standardize their meaning(s) in order to make them useful. If no one could agree on what a “rose” was, the word would have no usefulness whatsoever. It is only when we collectively agree on a definition that words are given the power to communicate. (Seriously, who decided that “selfie” was a word we needed to define?)

Now, here’s where things get tricky … most words have multiple meanings and/or the same meaning can be used to convey something very different in different situations. When combined with other communication tools — such as tone of voice, expressiveness, body language, etc… — meaning can change drastically. As seen above, simply stressing a different word in a sentence can completely change its meaning.

Communication is not as simple a process as we wish to believe. It is not simply a matter of saying what you need to say and moving on knowing you have properly communicated what you intended. In fact, I would argue that the majority of relationship issues are caused by misunderstandings; the inability of either party to properly communicate what they want to say combined with the inability to actively listen to what the other person is trying to say.

<<And, on a side note, social media technologies only serve to heighten this problem due to the lack of true relatedness built in … we are simply reading text on a page and not feeling what caused that person to write or seeing how they feel about what they wrote, etc…>>

Now, what is my point?

Words matter.

But the reason they matter is because of what they are trying to say —

And often this is not crystal-clear to everyone involved.

Communicating with words requires work. It requires interpretation, questions, clarification and a commitment to listen; to care about the other person/people and try to learn what they are saying. It requires patience and checking to ensure what you are saying is being understood.

It is not as easy as simply saying your piece and moving on — this is a way to guarantee misunderstanding and conflict.

This is why in disagreements, both sides can feel completely justified in their viewpoint(s) and yet some outsiders may clearly see where the breakdown has occurred. (Not that they necessarily can see a way back to a peaceful resolution, but shouldn’t that be our goal?)

“You’re both right, but you’ve both failed!”

This is the difference between simply hearing and listening. Simply talking versus communicating. Simply reading versus understanding.

The difference is a real attempt to discover what it is someone else is really saying — not what you hear.

So, try to ask questions, suspend judgements and think the best of the other person before reacting. You’d be shocked at the difference it can make.

(And maybe soon, I can extend this even further into how we understand and read the bible … but that’s for another day!)


2 thoughts on “Working With Words

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