This post is not about meaning well. It’s about clearly defining terms you commonly share with your clients or employees. It’s about caring enough to assure that others interpret your communication as you intend.
Take the word empowerment for example. If you ask employees if they feel empowered in the workplace, you will likely get a range of answers – not because the circumstances for the individuals are necessarily different, but because one person’s definition of empowerment may not square with another’s interpretation. Some may define empowerment as having individual freedom and flexibility to make decisions, while others may regard it as having open access to the vast resources of their employer to get their jobs done. Both are certainly versions of empowerment, but they don’t mean the same thing, and the circumstances that may create one form of empowerment do not necessarily facilitate the other.
Collaboration is an even better example because of the visceral reaction it can evoke. Based on someone’s prior experience, the word collaboration can elicit either, “Great, we can all work together to come up with the best idea and make it happen” or “Oh no. Now we’re going to invite a whole bunch of people into the mix, and we’ll never get anything done – at least not anytime soon.” “Collaboration” can come in all shapes and sizes, so unless you’re specific about what you mean, or paying really close attention to how your words are being interpreted, the likelihood of miscommunication and misunderstanding with your audiences is high.
Dr. Karl M. Soehnlein (one of my Seton Hall University professors) was kind enough to share a resource that speaks to this concept. In the book Understanding & Sharing: An Introduction to Speech Communication, by Pearson & Nelson (1994) the authors define communication as “the process of understanding and sharing meaning.”
So what are we to do? It’s a little ridiculous to think we should have to negotiate the specific meanings of all the words we use, but as leaders and communicators, we must be attuned to our audiences both in terms of how they interpret our meaning and how we process theirs. Whether you’re direct or more subtle, make sure you and your clients/employees are on the same page. It won’t just show you mean well, it will demonstrate you actually care.