Words Aren’t Just Words: The Lexicon of Community

“Healthy conflict creates joy.”

As my business partner and I stood in front of the team and made that statement, our excitement was a bit tempered by the reaction all around us: There were some enthusiastic nods, but more than a few looked at us in confusion and even disbelief about what we’d just said.


There we were, excited to celebrate the value conflict is bringing to the company—growing pains, perhaps, but an essential part of the journey nevertheless—when I was instantly reminded by the faces staring back at us: Conflict is a “heavy” word, loaded down with the baggage of our experiences.


I experienced the weight of another heavy word in a recent strategic planning meeting where I suggested we needed to be “Consultants” for our customers.

“Absolutely!” said some. “It’s important that we are consultative in our interactions. We need to ask good questions and collaborate on solutions.”

“No, that’s not consulting!” said others. “Consultants have deep expertise in a sector. They are able to help organizations benchmark against peers and guide executives in developing strategy.”

“Well, I didn’t mean either of those,” I said, confused. “I meant that we need to use tools to uncover root causes of problems in organizations, tailor solutions to address those root causes, and document case studies of measurable impact.”


We looked at each other cross-eyed.

Here’s the thing: Words aren’t just words. We all speak our own dialects and languages, assigning different meanings to the words we choose. In low-stakes communication, we might not care enough to make it an issue. We internally resign ourselves to agree to disagree or we pick our battles and let it go.

But what about the high-stakes conversation? The negotiation, strategy planning, branding, mission statement or interpersonal tension?

Words are the currency of community. How can we have true community if people are shutting down because of a “language” barrier?

Two questions to consider this week:

1. If I made it an agenda item to define “heavy” words at the outset, how might that change the outcome?

If I had asked myself whether or not I was using any heavy (intense, complex, emotional) words, I might have realized that “conflict” would get a reaction. If I were to do it over, I’d have opened with a question:

What are everyone’s experiences with conflict and how does that impact how you view conflict at work?

Woah! That would have made for a different outcome.

2. How much more productive could we be as a community if we practiced conscious language translation?

During the Winter Olympics, I watched a television interview of a senior Russian official discussing the incomplete development projects, poverty and corruption in Sochi. He spoke in Russian while the interviewer spoke in English, and a translator sat between them. I wondered, “How much pressure does that translator feel to get this right?”

Anyone with any language study experience understands that several words in every language have NO direct translation to another language. Furthermore, many words could have several different meanings in another language depending on context and intent. Too often, just because we’re speaking the same language, we assume we are speaking the same language. Are we, though?

What’s a heavy word you’ve found to have significantly different definitions? And how have those differences impacted your ability to build an engaging community?



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