Words, Language and Meaning
I recently participated to a facilitation workshop where we (the five students) were given a simple exercise by our instructor: we were to take just a few minutes to individually write down on paper any words that came to our minds that we personally associated with the word “Facilitation.” Then, we got together and counted the words we had in common. The result was as indicated below:
4x 3x 2x 1x
0 1 5 63
In summary, there wasn’t a single word that was common to the five of us while there were 63 words that had been uniquely identified by any one of us. Note that the reason we did not have more words in common was not because we thought the words did not apply to the idea of facilitation. Indeed, when we heard each other words we often exclaimed “Of course! Nice word! I should have thought of it!” In some rare cases, we said “That is not a word I would have connected to the idea of facilitation!”
While typical, this result is quite astonishing. (You can try this exercise with your team, your family, or a few friends, using another word.) Simply put, this means that words evocate different images and metaphors and have a different meaning for each of us. As an example, you may be surprised to hear that the word “collaboration” has had a very negative connotation for me until I moved to the U.S. 14 years ago. Yet, the reason is simple: in France, the word “collaboration” is associated with French people who collaborated with the Nazis and fought against the French resistance during WW2. If you are French, you don’t want to be called a “collaborateur”!
The theory of embodied cognition sheds some light on why we assign different meanings to the same word or why similar and related words evocate different feelings and images in us. Embodied cognition means that as ideas, thoughts, concepts and so on, are shaped by our education, past experiences and learning—our personal history—they get embodied as metaphorical thoughts within our brain. This phenomenon occurs when the same recurring experience activates the neurons in different brain areas and neural circuits get formed and connections reinforced over time.
In a recent article called “A Good Week for Science—and Insights into Politics,” the linguist George Lakoff points out:
“The meaning of every word is characterized in terms of a brain circuit called a “frame.” Frames are often characterized in terms of the usual apparatus of mental life: metaphors, images, cultural narratives – and neural links to the emotion centers of the brain. The narrow, literal meaning of a word is only one aspect of its frame-semantic meaning.
The second basic result is that this is mostly unconscious, like 98% of human thought.”
Lakoff goes on by explaining that the word “homosexual,” for instance, has a very different connotation for most people (i.e., is defined with a different frame) than the words “gay men and lesbians.” The use of the word “homosexual” in a poll will generate completely different poll results that the use of the words “gay men and lesbians.” (Note: the remaining of Lakoff’s article discusses the different uses of frames by republicans and democrats politicians; the article is worth a read.)
The above has great consequences for communication in general, and for facilitation, visioning, or conflict resolution, in particular. Indeed, how do we know if the words we use are being interpreted with the meanings we intended? Or, conversely, how do we know if we interpret words we hear with the meaning our interlocutors wished to convey? If we don’t check and ask, we can’t know for sure. And most often, we don’t take the time to do so. For the majority of our common daily activities, our interpretations are close enough to the intended meaning and sufficiently accurate to help us make simple decisions and coordinate actions. Life would be impossible if it were otherwise! But in situations where we are dealing with politically, ethically, or morally-charged issues such as climate changes, sustainability, poverty or healthcare, which generate very different emotional feelings in different people, clarification of content and meaning is key to a successful resolution of the issues at hand.
A facilitator’s important role is one of content clarifier. A skilled facilitator asks clarifying questions to draw out valuable information and get insights about the true meaning of what is being said. In addition, a facilitator must also ensure that the frames and mental models of the participants are made transparent to the entire group so that each participant can fully understand the diverse assumptions, rationale, viewpoints and perspectives behind what is being said.
There is an art to asking probing questions, but an art that can be learned. Next time you are in a conversation with someone you disagree with, do not argue and take a position. Instead, remember to inquire into the other person’s frames and mental models so that you can expand your own horizon of understanding of the issue you are discussing. You may end-up completely changing your perspective. At a minimum, you may gain a greater understanding of the gap between your interlocutor’s standpoint and yours. It is worth the effort!