Have you been here? You’ve had a productive, energetic meeting with plenty of meaningful discussion. You feel like you know exactly what the agreed direction or idea is, it seems like everyone is on the same page.  Then, suddenly, it all grinds to a halt. You thought your team was just about to cross the finish line, but now it feels like you’re tripping over each other.  Then you realise what’s going on.  You all agree on the direction, you just can’t nail down the exact words to articulate it.  Somebody thinks that ‘empower’ is too generic. Someone else thinks the word ‘ideal’ absolutely has to be in there.  Hours of positive collaboration seem to be on the brink of breaking down at the last hurdle: wording.

Now, Sarah and I both love words. So much so that we both studied languages at university and speak several besides English, including my made up Italian which I would describe as a French/Spanish hybrid with some Latin thrown in for fun. If I don’t have a book on the go I feel a deep sense of existential crisis. But I digress.

Words have power.

They’re one of the things that make humans unique as a species.

However, language can also be limiting, and this is why we often see so much tension when it comes to defining something in a few perfect words.  Why?

  1. Our emotional language is often quite limited.  Very few of us are given the tools as children to express the full range and complexity of our emotions, and we’re all taught to describe emotions differently (this is one of the reasons that emotional competence often decreases with linguistic ability, but again, I digress).  As such, if we’re trying to collectively describe as a group the emotional impact we want our product/campaign/internal culture to have, there can be huge gaps in our individual abilities to communicate that.

  2. We’re all using slightly different dictionaries. Not physical dictionaries, but internal dictionaries. This is linked to the point above, and essentially means that whilst we obviously all speak the same language, there are subtle differences in our understanding of certain words and phrases based on our own very individual lives and experiences.  This becomes particularly evident if you’re working with an international group – I often found there were significant differences in my interpretation of words compared to my New York counterparts.

  3. The English language has strengths and weaknesses. Did you know that there are 17 different words to describe wet weather in English? From mizzle to pouring, they run the gamut, and that’s before you throw in all the rain-related metaphors.  However, other words, such as ‘love’, need to cover a huge range of meanings, making them much trickier to use concisely.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in this situation? Firstly, don’t panic! The fact that the group is disagreeing isn’t necessarily bad.  Then take a step back, take the pressure off the words and try some alternative exercises to pinpoint the meaning before you finalise the words.  This might be a visual exercise, defining the opposite of what you want to say, or something creatively expressive like writing a short poem. 

There are many ways to make sure words don’t get in our way, which we implement regularly in our workshops, particularly when it comes to defining vision and purpose.