Words Matter


I have a passion for how people use words and the process by which they make meaning from those words. Why the interest? Because words matter. The choice of one poor word can quickly send a meeting down an unproductive path.

For instance, take the word “strategy.” No other word has been used so frequently in business books or so routinely on the covers of business magazines. Yet despite this word’s popularity, different people use it to mean different things, and those differences can compromise meeting outcomes significantly.

To address the pitfall of multiple meanings, when I begin strategic planning meetings, I ask everyone to write down what “strategy” means to them. Then I read the various responses to the group, and we explore the differences in meaning and the implications of those differences. I do the same with words like “empowerment,” “inclusion,” “collaboration,” and “user-friendly.” Any of those words can produce radically different frames of meaning. If I’m lucky, I can find another word that works better if the original is too problematic. After all, words are free!

So, you can imagine my interest when I came across a Scientific American article from the February 1, 2024 issue, “People Have Very Different Understandings of Even the Simplest Words” by Simon Makin. The article describes from a neurological and cognitive perspective how differently people can interpret terms such as “risk” and “fairness.” Citing the results of several neurological studies, Makin writes that when people use abstract concepts in group settings, they “… generally overestimate the degree to which other people will share the same concept as them when they’re speaking.”

People define words such as “empowerment,” “diversity,” and “uncertainty” on the basis of “lifetimes of experience, practices, or beliefs,” according to Makin. Those words are thus tied to one’s identity and are strongly connected to an individual’s emotional frames. So you won’t be surprised to hear that those words can produce patterns of neural activity that are distinct from the patterns produced in individuals for whom the words carry little emotional weight.

How’s that for a meeting hurdle to overcome?

Do you lead risk or uncertainty assessment workshops? You might want to get a reading on the various interpretations of certain words in your meeting room. Makin’s article describes the work of Kris DeMeyer, a neuroscientist involved in climate change discussions. DeMeyer’s work showed how the professional practices of economists, which are different from those of scientists, result in “different semantic presentations in the brain” when economists and scientists use words such as “risk” and “uncertainty.” The two groups might use the same terms but “are oblivious” to their different brain representations of the term, a rather problematic phenomenon when seeking alignment regarding the risks and uncertainties associated with climate change.

DeMeyer’s recommendation for remediation? Find another word (but even that has its limitations). Trying to reshape a person’s set definition of conceptual words rarely succeeds.

Words matter! Be mindful of the words you use.

You can read the full article here.


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