Getting to The Meanings Behind The Words

~ Dr.L.Michael Hall
To be able to achieve “deep listening”, you have to learn how to deal with words as symbols and question them to get to the references and meanings they refer to. By themselves, words do not mean anything. Whether as a sound spoken into the air or as a set of scribbles written on paper, if you do not know the code- the words themselves will mean nothing to you.
Just look at any set of words that are part of a language that’s foreign to you, or listen to a language that you do not know. The meaning is not in the words.
The meaning is in the person. It is the person who understands the code and can use the symbols as symbols to identify the facts (referent experiences) and then reason from those facts to some conclusion (a belief, decision, understanding, identity, etc.). Now if the meaning is in the person and not the word-do not blindly accept the key words that you hear from your client!
Check them out. “How are you using the term X?” “What are you referring to when you use Y?” We call this a clarity check in Meta-Coaching and if you do not do this with the key words, and especially the semantically loaded terms, you will not understand your client. And without understanding, you will not be able to facilitate that person’s development.
Steve de Shazer spoke to this when he summarized what Horne Tooke, a linguist, wrote about the danger of words and how we have to unpack them.
“The significant thing Horne Tooke (1832) found out about language is that all the structural parts of language- the prepositions, conjunctions, prefixes, suffixes, and whatnot- once where full-fledged, meaningful words that got gradually whittled down to handle little symbols. Language, as Tooke discovered, goes through a continuous process of condensation and abbreviation; through the centuries, people manage to cram more and more meaning into fewer and fewer words. What once took a whole sentence or clause to express, can now be compressed into a single word; and language is full of clever devices that make for more and more speed. … The principle: a single participle or complex word takes the place of a cumbersome word-combination.” (Clues, 1988, page 132)
It is the compactness of words that can create lots of problems for you as a Coach. The words that your client uses can carry a heavy load of ideas.
That is, as we say in Neuro-Semantics, the words can be semantically loaded.
And if they are, then as a professional communicator, your job starts by unpacking the person’s meanings. That’s why you ask exploration and testing questions. Doing so enables you to get on the same page with your client.
If you don’t do that, your interactions as a Coach will be irrelevant! De Shazer again:
“Most of the long, complex words in modern prose are not labels for things in the world around us – like radioactivity- but condensed expressions of abstract ideas that can be expressed just as well in two or more shorter words.” (p. 135)
How about that!? Certain words are not labels for things in the real
external world. They summarize abstract ideas. So when you encounter some of those words, you have a lot of unpacking to do. “Self-Esteem” is another complex word. How is the person using that term? What “self” is he thinking about (his innate self, his social self, his career self, his performance self, etc.). What kind of esteeming is she referring to, and based on what criteria? How can you even talk intelligently if you don’t ask these questions?
De Shazer says that “One of the basic facts about language is that no word
ever means exactly the name to two different people.” (p. 171). It all
depends on the person’s individual background and experience with the term and since no two persons live exactly the same life-each term will inevitably mean something different. You have to ask.
“Reading is really a miracle,” says de Shazer. That’s because the meanings that you are attempting to send via words are unpredictable. You never know what meaning someone will conclude from the words.
“In writing, you can predict more or less accurately what your general style and your language structure will do to your readers, but you can never predict what a given word will do to a given reader. Words don’t mean anything by themselves or even in groups of two or three. Words get their meanings from the context, from the sentences they are in, or even the whole paragraph. After your eyes have seen the words, your mind assigns to these words a provisional meaning, ‘good only until further notice.'” (p. 182)
The truth is that you and I can easily mis-understand each other and mis-understand our clients. What do they really mean? What meanings are really driving their experience? Are the meanings that your client has invented about something accurate, useful, ecological, toxic, dysfunctional, or what? As a Meta-Coach, you coach to the heart of things- the client’s meanings. That’s why learning how to deeply listening is critical if you are to be world-class in your coaching. And to get to the real meanings behind the words, you have to slow the conversation down, check the words, reflect what you hear and help your client to more deeply understand his own meanings.
It’s not easy; if it were then anyone could Coach. It’s not easy, it is a challenging adventure. Are you up for it? Are you willing to develop your skills to lead that adventure? This is what makes your coaching worth its money. When you can get to the meanings behind the words and enable your client’s more effective meaning-making, you have enriched a person’s life at its source. How valuable is that?
Here’s my challenge for you: Refuse to tolerate having shallow, superficial conversations with your clients. Inspire them and invite them to go deeper.
Invite them to explore their meanings and the quality of their meaning-making and to get real. And that’s the ultimate purpose of your coaching, is it not? Inviting your clients to unleash their authenticity!
Want More?
If you would like to know how to engage deep listening, enrol for Coaching Essentials  in Orange. Contact us for more details

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