Beware of the ambiguity of meanings

rsan3_hiNo two brains contain exactly the same “meaning” for any word, expression, or concept. The meanings are embedded in the people, not in the words. Karl Albrecht

When I first read this statement by Albrecht, I was on vacation with my wife, Mary. I decided to submit the theory to rigorous scientific testing, so at dinner I shared his statement and then suggested a particular word for the two of us to discuss. “Mary, tell me what the word romance means to you and I’ll share what it means to me.”

I should have picked a different word. Or, after Mary told me what romance meant to her, I should have said, “Ditto.” Our conversation was spirited but helpful. We soon realized that Albrecht’s theory is correct.

Several weeks later, at a family dinner, we all explored the term curiosity. Once again, a wide range of interpretations were given.

While having lunch with a group of friends, I asked each person to share what the the term intelligence means. The conversation was lively.

Each exercise underscored the fact that, indeed, every person has his or her own meaning for every word expression, or concept. Because each person had a nuanced perspective on each word, our discussions enhanced each person’s understanding of the particular term.

The implications of this theory are significant.

  • It helps explain why good communication is so difficult.
  • It underscores the importance of Steven Covey’s advice – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
  • It exposes our own narrow-minded view of the world.
  • It challenges us to seek a more expanded and deeper understanding of all things.
  • It challenges us to be more careful and thorough when communicating to others.

One woman shares her first major encounter with the slippery slope of semantics.

“When I was four, I began taking ice skating lessons. I’d watched figure skating in the Winter Olympics and thought it looked awesome. Soon, though, I realized that ice skating was a lot colder and more painful than I’d expected (and I was less graceful than I’d hoped). I began to dread my lessons, but my parents encouraged me to finish the ones they’d already paid for.

“One week, I got sick and missed a class. My mom was able to get me into a class later in the week; a ‘make-up lesson.’

“All week, I looked forward to being instructed in the proper application of makeup. What a treat to get a break from ice skating to focus on the finer points of Little Mermaid lipstick and Hello Kitty nail polish!

“I remember quite powerfully how disappointed I was when I got to the ice rink to discover that the ‘make-up lesson’ was just more ice skating, with my same old teacher in the same old rink.”

Rudyard Kipling was a bit more poetic when he said, “We are all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.”

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]


What? – Reread Albrecht’s statement.
So what? – Communication is more difficult than any of us can imagine.
Now what? – Work hard at minimizing misunderstandings that occur because of the mixed meanings of words.

Leaders – Good communication among all groups in your organization is essential. Bossidy and Charan say, “Dialogue is the core of culture and the basic unit of work. How people talk to each other absolutely determines how well the organization will function.” Discuss with your team, how the ambiguity of word meanings might adversely affect your internal and external communication.

16 Replies to “Beware of the ambiguity of meanings”

  1. This is marvelous, Don. Meaning is found not only in the variety of words but in the variety of expressions. Slap some sarcasm on “I love you” or make the phrase I question and the meaning changes entirely! Your posts always make me think. I’m grateful.

    1. Good observations, Wayne. Meanings are so elusive. When we talk, there’s no telling what people are hearing.

  2. Don: What a lovely idea to discuss words/meanings so specifically – I must try it at lunch with friends on Friday. How often have I struggled to understand and be understood in my 74 years? A recent interchange with a hearing aid specialist in the past few days is a case in point. I thought I was clearly articulating descriptions of sounds I was/was not hearing. He just was not comprehending. He left the practice abruptly and another man took his place. This one “gets me” and is exchanging the aids for a different brand he believes will help me more. Hearing with the heart is sometimes most important.

    1. Carla,
      How true it is. Communication is so difficult, even when getting a hearing aid! It’s good to hear (there’s that word again) from you. Don

    1. Bill, I think communication will be a life-long effort for all of us.
      Thanks for commenting.
      I hope you are doing well.

  3. This helps to explain the difficulties of communication in a more objective manner. It is not always because another person (spouse) is not listening or does not care.

    1. Thanks, Christy, for sharing your thoughts. There are so many challenges with communication. Not listening well is one of them (my blog next week addresses this issue), the ambiguity of words is another. It’s something we all need to constantly work on. Take care.

  4. Don this was thought provoking and eye opening. It is a wonderful exercise to understand that the same word or phrase is interpreted differently by each individual. Thank you for sharing.

  5. sounds like a good review of Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings on linguistics would be in order here! I’m not sure meanings are as individualized as Albrecht describes here, but individual connotations based on experience (someone who had an absent dad versus an engaged one has a much different launching point for their understanding of the word ‘dad’), culture (the concepts of sin, eternity, purpose in life, social mores), and education levels definitely affect the ongoing conversations!
    It also is evident for those attempting to witness to their particular faith. Sin, Savior, God, forgiveness are all flavored by so much. Words are murky, fluid portals and connecting points to the lives of others. Maybe you should explore how certain authors’ written words resonate with certain people, not just spoken ones in conversation.

    1. Thanks, Allan, for sharing your thoughts. I particularly like your phrase “Words are murky, fluid portals and connecting points to the lives of others.” Communication is so difficult on so many levels. I/m not familiar with Wittgenstein’s writings on linguistics; where would be a good place to start if I pursued that?

    1. Thanks, Curtis, for sharing your thoughts. The Bible has a lot to say about our words, and how careful we must be in speaking.

  6. Great reminder to leaders – and I whole-heartedly agree.

    One of the challenges I find, and would love to see you speak to this next time around, that some people are often unwilling to ask clarifying questions. Perhaps fearful they might offend or be perceived in some negative way, or even seen as “challenging leadership.” Creating a culture of “we” is, I believe, imperative for success. As your article so clearly states even what appears to be clearly communicated and well chosen words often breeds confusion instead of clarity. And if the recipient doesn’t clarity then the communicator thinks they’ve been successful yet the recipient is left in a fog – yet it can go on leaving behind unresolved ambiguity which ultimtaely leads to many things, most of them not good!

    In the end people must work hard on both sides – the sender and the receiver – to ensure crystal clear communications.

    1. Scott, you’re right about the need for robust dialogue among team members. (I’ve written an essay on this topic that I’ll post in the fall.). Too often there’s an absence of transparent, honest communication. It usually does surface, but in unhealthy ways. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope you are well.

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