“Words that convey no information may nevertheless move carloads of shaving soap or cake-mix. . . Words can start people marching in the streets—and can stir others to stoning the marchers. Words that make no sense as prose can make a great deal of sense as poetry. Words that seem simple and clear to some may be puzzling and obscure to others. With words we sugarcoat our nastiest motives and our worst behaviors, but with words we also formulate our highest ideals and aspirations. To understand how language works, what pitfalls it conceals, what its possibilities are, is to understand what is central to the complicated business of living the life of a human being. To be concerned with the relationship between language and reality, between words and what they stand for in the speaker’s or the hearer’s thoughts and emotions, is to approach the study of language as both an intellectual and a moral discipline.” S.I. Hayakawa
We have all heard the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it just ain’t so. Words can hurt, and they can hurt deeply. Our words can turn an enemy into a friend and a friend into an enemy. Our words can lift someone up or tear someone down. In fact, one of the most powerful things we have as a leader is our words.
As powerful as words are, we must not forget that much of their power comes not from the words themselves but from the context in which the words are spoken. The gestures and tone we use with our words, the time and place we choose to speak our words, the way we put the words together, they all have an impact on how our words are received. So, choose your words with care, and choose the context in which your share them with even more care.
“Ignoring of context in any act of interpretation is at best a stupid practice. At worst it can be a vicious practice.” S.I. Hayakawa
To keep context working for you and not against you, keep the following in mind:
1. Include Facts
Every message must start with the facts—objective data, truth, things you can see, feel, taste, hear, or smell. Be careful, however, facts are never enough. Why? First, because meaning rests in the person, not in the thing. Second, because what you think is true may not be true at all. Facts are important, but they are never enough.
2. Include Interpretations
“To find out what something means, find out what question it is the answer to.” Suzette Haden Elgin
There is a “one word, one meaning” fallacy. No word has exactly the same meaning twice. And you cannot know what a word means in advance. The meaning of a word must be based on context. Interpretation is an important part of that context because it is the subjective meaning we give to the facts. It is based upon our past experience, our assumptions, our expectations, and our knowledge.
3. Include Feelings
Feelings are important because they communicate how the facts and our interpretation of those facts affect others. Feelings give meaning to interpretation in the same way that interpretation gives meaning to facts. Feelings are not the problem. They are a faithful signal of how the facts are being interpreted.
“Without the guidance of emotions, reasoning has neither principle nor power.” Robert C. Solomon
4. Include Intentions
Intentions answers the question, “What’s next?” Intention could be what I am requesting of you, what you can expect from me, or where I stand on an issue. The message is never complete without clear intentions.
“People can seriously misunderstand what it is they’re not saying to each other.” Jack Rosenthal