CONVERSATIONS – The Art of Trying to Have Them!

~Written by Michael Hall~
You would think … okay, well, I would think … that the simplest thing in the world would be a conversation. To talk! After all, we all engage in conversations every day. So I would think we should be pretty good at it.
And we’ve been doing it since we first learned to talk. But no. It is not simple and we are not good at it! It is actually very difficult and it is full of complications.

One Problem with Language: Assumptions

In his book, Clues, Steve de Shazer wrote, “The best way to design a failure is to establish a poor definition of the complaint” (Clues, 1988, p. 118).
And similarly, a great way to create mis-understanding and to mess up communication is to not define your terms clearly. So this is why in the Meta-Coaching system we always emphasize that when you begin a conversation, do not assume that the other person is using words the same way you are.
You think you know what “leadership,” “money,” “discipline,” “openness,” “belief,” etc. means. Don’t assume that your meaning is the other persons’s meaning. Do that and you can pretty well guarantee the lack of understanding.

Authority Figure

While it is true that we have “a common language,” and while it is true that we have a dictionary (or actually, many dictionaries) that we can consult, we also each have our own history and learning with words, so that we use different referents when we use words. Since my use of “authority figure,” will have in common with you and most others some reference to someone who has some “authority” to do something. But beyond that, what has been your experiences with someone or many someones who you put into that category?
What were your early experiences with mom and dad, teachers, a principle, a policeman, a judge, a boss, etc.?
Neither you nor I can fully define the term “authority figure” by reading a definition in a dictionary. I need to ask you about your life experiences with that term, the people that you have met in person, met in books, seen in movies, talked about with others, and the connotations that you have loaded into that phrase.

“How are you using the words ‘authority figure?'”

First of all, if I don’t ask, if I assume that your experiences are the same as mine, I am entering into a mine-field semantically … not knowing at any given point where I might step onto a meaning, a memory, or a old connection that will explode and suddenly put you into a very unpleasant state. That’s the way words are- they are anchors for previous experiences. And none of us have the same referent experiences. So our meanings are always going to be different.
In this vein, S.I. Hayakawa, (1941, Language in Action) said that “words infect us everyday.” Ah, the infection of words! Words are not neutral.

Language Is Not Innocent

And there’s assumptive frames in the words we hear and the words that we use. But what assumptions? What is being presupposed by our words and language? That is the question! If someone asks, “Can we cure our words and our language of presuppositions?” The answer is short and simple: No, we cannot. Hence you cannot not presuppose. And nor can I. Finally, there are assumptions and presuppositions in just about everything we say. The only solution is to be more mindful and conscious so that we expand our awareness as to what’s being implied. Because then we can clean up our language, at least to some extent. Finally, we can make our assumptions as explicit as possible, say what we are presupposing, and ask others about their assumptions. That will also change the conversation for the better.

Another Language Problem: Unpredictability

So words are, by definition, unpredictable. And 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. Therefore each reader will use his or her reference experiences to understand the words and so the same word will have many connotations to various readers.

We have to remind ourselves: Words don’t’ mean anything

First of all, it is the reader or the hearer who attributes meanings to the words. So context will help to confine and define a word, but even then, it is the listener who constructs the meaning. So the listener does that from the context, from the sentences within which they are embedded, from the paragraph, the book, the country, the time period, etc. Actually, reading itself is pretty much a miracle! After your eyes have seen the words, your mind assigns to these words a provisional meaning, “good only until further notice,” you construct a meaning.

Here then is a basic problematic fact about language no word ever means exactly the same thing to two different people.

Hence, each word, term, and/or name means what it means to you depending on many variables. Your background of experience with the word inevitably gives it a twist and feel unique to you. And the more experience you have with that word, the richer and more complex the meanings that it has for you. In many ways, it is a wonder that any of us understand another! Given that no two persons live exactly the same life, not even twins, every word will mean something different. So this is the unpredictability of words. And the dictionary is no arbitrator. Hence it is just the record of how people have used and are using a word, generally.
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