~ Article written by L. Michael Hall PhD ~
When I listen to some conversations, they seem and feel thick. It is not only difficult to have some conversations due to the assumptions that are built within them and the unpredictability of words, conversations can be difficult due to the density of words. Here is another language problem that makes conversations difficult, namely-

The Density Of Language

This refers to the fact that some words and some phrases are exceptionally dense. The density or compactness within some words make it very difficult to unpack the meaning and to understand. Density arise from how words can carry a heavy load of ideas. That is, a lot of thoughts, a multitude of ideas, and multiple levels of meanings can be packed into a single word or phrase.

Compressed Meaning

Horne Tooke (1832) discovered and wrote about this fact regarding language back in the nineteenth century. What he wrote about was the structural parts of language- the prepositions, conjunctions, prefixes, suffixes, etc.
He noted that these parts of language, which once referred to full-fledged, ideas are whittled down to little symbols.

Condensation and Abbreviation

Furthermore Tooke said that over the centuries, through a continuous process of condensation and abbreviation, people cram more and more meaning into fewer and fewer words. What once took a whole sentence or a clause to express, came to be compressed it into a single word or phrase. He talked about language as “full of clever devices that make for more and more speed.” “A single participle or complex word can take the place of a cumbersome word-combination.” (p. 132).

Abstractions And Density

To illustrate, he used radioactivity as an example. “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.” (135)

Here’s A Contemporary Example

A statement that was issued from the Veterans Administration. While it sounds like legalese, it is a description to employees about their compensation. How clear are you about the message that someone is trying to communicate?
“The non-compensable evaluation heretofore assigned you for your service-connected disability is confirmed and continued.”
Now try to discern the meaning in that one! The trouble is that the thoughts are bunched together in tight little bundles like “non-compensable’ or ‘service-connected.’ Talk about dense and compact! Yes, lawyers tend to write that way, politicians talk that way, and so do people who think in general or global ways. Here are some things I’ve heard in coaching-
“I really want to achieve success in my assertiveness when I speak with my colleagues and confirm the union of our joint commitment.”
Getting into the serenity of the present will give me more flow for a benevolence of connecting that I haven’t had in the past.

Difficult To Understand

If there is any language form that is dense it is nominalizations and when a person speaks with multiple nominalizations, the density of the sentences makes understanding and comprehension increasingly difficult.
“Threats to my self-esteem have been destructive to my relationship and needs to be corrected.”
Furthermore the italicized words are nominalizations– verbs that have been reformulated into nouns. But they are pseudo-names. It is not really “a person, place, or thing.” Yet it is a process and set of actions that are coded as if it were a thing. But it is not. So the person is either threatening himself or receiving a threat from someone that he is interpreting as against his process of esteeming (appraising) himself of value and he is saying that this process is destroying how he relates to someone. That brings up lots of questions:
Who or what is threatening? What is the threat? Is it legitimate or just words?
How are you valuing yourself as a person? Are you doing this conditionally or unconditionally? What criteria are you using in this appraisal that you are making?
When you hear the threat, how is that related to the valuing or dis-valuing yourself as having value? How are you using it to destroy how you relate?
Who are you relating to? How are you relating? How does you’re accepting of the threat to destroy your value?

Density! Compactness.

Some words and phrases are really loaded and have to be unloaded. Most noteworthy is the conversation cannot really continue unless we take time to unpack the meaning to actually understand what someone is saying.


Take the word “truth” for another example. Originally it meant, “that which is trowed.” And “to trow” meant to think, to believe firmly, to be thoroughly persuaded of. Implied within the term “truth” is the assumption that some person is thinking or believing something or thoroughly persuaded of. But what? What is the person thinking or believing? And who? Who is doing the thinking?


Finally, we have to unpack and that’s one of the functions of all conversations. We unpack from each other what the other person means by the words and gestures he is using.
Learn how to unpack words through Coaching Essentials, delivered regularly at The Coaching Centre

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