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Wednesday, 21 May 2014 13:54

Aren’t we just talking semantics?

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Have you ever been in one of those meetings in which the whole conversation revolves around definitions? Occasionally these sessions are explicitly set up as an exploration of definitions. More often a meeting becomes about definitions when someone says something like “what do you mean by that” or “I don’t understand what you are talking about”.


I used to worry when I was in one of those meetings that were just talking about words – and in my mind that “just” is underlined, bold, italics. Such meetings were exploring meanings and the applications rather than the underlying things that they apply to. I would worry that we were not making progress and then I would get impatient and frustrated. In my work I have become action and outcome focussed and often have little patience for activities that I perceive are not making progress. “Oh no, not words again – we need to do some real work”, I would think.


I have realised, that whilst it is possible to spend too much time exploring meanings and worrying about semantics, these sessions are important. They cannot be short circuited by looking a definition up in a dictionary. In such discussions, we are not acting like lexicographers trying to find the perfect definition, but we are creating shared meanings and shared concepts. Shared meaning is crucial for effective communication. Concepts are a fundamental basis for our thinking. To work as a team needs shared concepts.


Definitions are important, but in most cases looking the definition up in a dictionary is of moderate help at best. What is important is not what the definition of a word is, but how a word is being used in a context – that is with that group of participants and that specific conversation. If you care about communications then you should care about words and their meanings.


There are many obvious benefits to shared meanings. It makes conversation and communication effective, and often efficient – as it is quicker to communicate when understandings are common. But there are hidden benefits too. I am convinced that often, especially in business, conversations happen when the participants come away happy, but they have actually been interpreting the words in different ways.


Many words that have grown up in business contexts are easy to equivocate about and have meanings a long way from the where the word originated from. Think of a business favourite such as “strategy”. When you discuss strategy with anyone else are you convinced they take “strategy” to have the same meaning as you do?


If the answer is no, then no matter how tedious you find it, start by exploring and discussing definitions. It’s a great way to ensure you communicate and to develop concepts together. In the longer run the investment in time will pay off handsomely!

Read 71222 times Last modified on Thursday, 22 May 2014 11:45
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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