Over the course of my coaching career, I’ve come to understand how much the words we use reflect our values and impact our relationships. Understanding each other is crucial when working effectively with others and building relationships of trust. I believe true understanding comes when we don’t assume we know what the other person means by the words they use and instead get curious about what those words mean to them.
Our thoughts, personality, and identity develop around the language we are exposed to growing up. In my case, I was exposed to the English language, spoken predominantly by white, cisgender, middle-class folks from the Midwest in the United States. When I was 19, I learned to speak Spanish (Castellano) while living in Guayaquil, Ecuador. I noticed that phrases I regularly used in English could not be directly translated into Spanish. It wasn’t only the words but the feeling of the terms that needed to be translated – which often required completely different words. No translation could effectively capture the true sense of a phrase I wanted to communicate in some cases.
When speaking to others who understand our native tongue, we often assume that the person listening understands what we are saying precisely the way we mean them. For example, I may say to a friend, ‘I met this very successful woman last night.’ In my mind, being successful in this context might translate to being wealthy. Still, success may mean that she owns a home or is highly organized and efficient in my friend’s mind. It is pretty startling to think about the number of conversations that must regularly occur in which both parties assume they understand each other but are actually on entirely different pages.
In my coaching sessions and leadership workshops, I try to pay close attention to language and foster a sense of curiosity that will lead to clarity. In a recent leadership workshop, I asked the group, ‘What do you yearn for?’ A co-founder of the organization responded, ‘I want to live an extraordinary life.’ I noticed images appear in my mind, and feelings began to arise that were associated with my definition of an extraordinary life, followed by words that attempted to interpret those images and emotions. Take a moment to notice what ideas, feelings, and words come up for you when you think about living an extraordinary life.
But instead of inserting my interpretation of an extraordinary life and moving on, I got curious. ‘What do you mean by an extraordinary life? Can you describe what that means to you?’ The co-founder responded with, ‘I think about the version of me at the end of my life that has maximized my potential – given my circumstances and abilities – and I want to close the gap as much as I can between the version of me today and that future version of me so that I don’t regret falling short because of laziness or lack of ambition.’ His response was a gold mine. What about his response makes you curious? What values do you see coming through based on the language he used? Do you have any judgment towards his response? If so, why? How much does his definition of an extraordinary life differ from your own? As you reflect on these questions, stay open and curious. There is no right or wrong here.
I continued to be curious about him. ‘What did you mean when you said, “maximize my potential?”’ As the conversation continued, he used variations of the words ‘achievement,’ ‘ambition,’ ‘accomplish,’ ‘maximize,’ ‘create,’ ‘laziness,’ and ‘fall short.’ I asked the group, ‘What are you hearing? What values are coming through based on the language he’s using?’ The group reflected back to him the language he used and became interested in what he meant. Through this exercise, the co-founder clarified his values and goals and how that understanding might differ from what his peers heard and valued. This awareness drove home two important points: our values are not universal; they are personal, and the definition of the words we use is not universal; it’s personal.
How does this awareness change how we engage with others? My hope is that we remember to bring curiosity to the conversations we have to invite clarity and understanding. In the next conversation you have, whether with a coworker, friend, or partner, listen for one or two words they use and ask what they mean. As you listen to their response, take a moment to notice how what they share might differ from what you initially understood and how that extra clarity deepens your understanding and connection with them.
Trevor Johnson is a senior consultant at Impact Americas.