Words Matter

Our choice of words, spoken or written, imbues meaning. It determines what we communicate. It affects our ability to solve problems. The way we describe, or frame, a problem can make all the difference in our ability to resolve it.

Here are three mistakes that I commonly make that demonstrate why carefully and properly choosing words matter.

Using words incorrectly

Using a word improperly can inadvertently convey the wrong action or meaning. For example, if you were to say ‘I skimmed a document,’ it implies that you reviewed the entire document to get a general idea of its structure and key topics. On the other hand, if you say ‘I scanned a document,’ it implies that you searched through the document to find a specific topic, word, or phrase without necessarily considering all of the topics or understanding the information contained within. Two words, skim and scan, that on the surface appear to indicate the same thing but in fact mean two totally different things.

The takeaway: It pays to take a little extra to think through what you’re about to say and make sure that you are using the right words in the right circumstances.

Assuming the meaning of ambiguous terms

Confusion can occur when one assumes that there is a common definition for an ambiguous term. While this can happen anywhere, it is a common problem in the technical domain. For example, the current buzzword du jour is artificial intelligence (AI). It’s a broad term used to describe computers that can solve problems and perform tasks traditionally performed by humans. While referred to as a single thing, it encompasses different technologies such as machine learning and neural networks. Therefore, when referring to AI, it’s important to specify which technology subset you are referencing. You may make a statement that AI is not feasible referring to its ability to be cognitively aware, while someone else may argue that AI is real and exists today referring to narrow tasks such as pattern recognition or natural language processing. There may be an ensuing debate when both might agree with the other’s statements if they defined what parts of AI they were discussing.

The takeaway: Be aware when using words and terms that can have multiple meanings in different contexts, and take the time to agree upon the definition of ambiguous terms to avoid miscommunication, unnecessary debating, or, in some cases, arguments.

Misdirecting focus

Carelessly choosing words can focus attention on the wrong things. When a mishap occurs, I have a bad habit of immediately asking, ‘Why did you do that?’, or ‘Who did it?’ These questions don’t focus on finding a solution to the problem at hand. These questions focus on assigning blame. By assigning blame, I put people on the defensive. It makes people the center of attention rather than the solution to the situation at hand.

To break this habit, I’ve tried to be more aware of the words I use when I run into a problem. If it’s work related, it usually revolves around software. Instead of asking, ‘Why did you write the code that way?’, I like to make the code the subject and ask ‘What is the software doing and what is the desired functionality?’ The first question focuses the attention on who wrote the code incorrectly, while the second question focuses attention on what needs to be fixed in the code to move forward. It’s a subtle change that makes a world of difference.

Likewise, when a problem like a flat tire is encountered, it’s not important how and why the tire is flat. It’s more important to recognize the problem and to discuss the options to fix it. Don’t focus on who. Focus on what the solutions are first, and then assign actions to the proper person(s) to fix it.

Form my experience, it’s easier said than done because our analytical mind wants to figure out why something happened and who caused it. In reality, there’s plenty of time to do that later. The key to moving forward quickly is acknowledging the issue and identifying a solution that moves things forward regardless of how we got here.

The takeaway: When problems come up, avoid leading with questions such as ‘why did you do that?’, or ‘what were you thinking?’ Instead, get the focus on the status of the current situation and keep the attention on moving forward. Performing a forensic analysis to figure out who was responsible and putting checks in place to prevent a problem from happening again should be saved for later, not performed in the heat of the moment.

(UPDATE: Here’s a great post from one of my favorite bloggers, Seth Godin, who so eloquently distills down what I was trying to say above in a lot less words – https://seths.blog/2022/07/detachment-and-commitment/)

Mastering these three areas takes practice and awareness. I’ve broken these “rules” many times, and I suspect that I will continue to do so in the future. Properly choosing my words is a skill that I am constantly working on and doing my best to get better at. I don’t suspect I will ever master it. But at a minimum, I want to at least develop the skill to recognize when I’ve chosen my words poorly. To be receptive when someone calls me on it. To be aware that, indeed, words matter.

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