Thursday, December 24, 2009

In a Word

Last night we had dinner with two of sweetest people on the planet, Kat and Alexander.

One of the things I love about Alexander and Kat as a couple is that they defy the stereo-typical gender-biased role models of right- and left-brainededenss. On the one hand, Kat is the left-brained, logical, epistemologically-oriented partner and Alexander is the right-brained, emotive, ontologically-oriented partner.

Communicating Economically
Kat and I work together all the time. The nature of our work and the rate at which we're working requires us to communicate clearly, efficiently and effectively; otherwise, we end up not actually accomplishing what we meant to accomplish or taking a lot longer to do so than would have been necessary. When we talk, we try to use words precisely and will often stop each other if we're uncertain of what the other meant by a specific word.

Alexander and I don't work together, but see each other frequently in the coffee shop or when the four of us get together for fun. The nature of our communication is completely different. Nonetheless, as we talk, I interact with Alexander in a manner similar to how I interact with Kat. I'll interrupt him when he uses a word that I don't understand or which doesn't make sense to me in the context of what he's saying.

Whereas the model works really well when talking with Kat, it doesn't work at all when talking with Alexander. The frequency and duration of my interruptions tends to make it difficult to maintain a conversational thread. Last night was no exception, so around midnight I began pondering the whole situation to see how I could do better, and then around five this morning, I picked up where I left off.

As I pondered, I came up with some realizations about myself, about Alexander and about how I relate to the world around me.

Words Matter
First, I delight in words. I enjoy exploring the subtle semantic differences between this one and that. I love translating abstract concepts into concise, precisely articulated descriptions that make the concepts clear and accessible. I have a deep appreciation for their power to communicate and to move people. I work diligently to gain mastery of their use.

Second, I believe that many of the challenges that we face today can be directly tied to sloppy use of words. I'm pretty sure that I've had this belief for a long time, but it really surfaced for me over the last eight hours or so.

One of the things that's great about computer languages (formal languages) is that, in order to work, they suffer no ambiguity. Everything you write in software must be precise and represent exactly what you intend because the computer has no capacity to interpret what you meant; it can only do what you said.

On the other hand, human languages (natural languages) tend towards ambiguity. This is not so much an artifact of the languages themselves, but of how we humans use language. Whereas with a computer, the writer has no choice but to be precise, with humans we often count on the capacity of the listener to interpret our meaning. So, we get sloppy.

This not only poses challenges in interpersonal relationships, but also in any systems that we build. For example, consider our legal systems and the volume of laws that we create. In some cases, the laws are created to accommodate situations that are truly new. More often, they're created to close a loophole created by an ambiguous statement; one that can be interpreted differently than intended.

I believe that the proliferation of bloated bureaucratic systems can be traced back to poor command of and the subsequent breakdown of language.

Third, for me, speaking is a skill not unlike playing music. It's not something that you just do or don't do. It's something that you can practice and develop. As you get better at it, you can hang out with other practitioners and jam. You can get better and better and better and enjoy it more deeply and meaningfully as you do.

Words Are Worthless
So, as I pondered why I was being so ineffective at communicating with Alexander, it occurred to me that my beliefs about and experience of words were getting in the way. I also realized that this phenomenon was not limited to my speaking with Alexander.

First, I now realize that people often select words based on how they sound which may or may not have anything to do with what they mean. For example, last night Alexander used the word exponential to describe the rate at which a specific phenomenon was growing. I paused to ask him if he actually meant exponential or if he meant a high rate of linear or multiplicative growth. Alexander replied that he meant exponential-linear growth.

Exponential-linear being an oxymoron, I pressed on for clarity and specificity that didn't actually exist. Now, a few hours later, I realize that by exponential, Alexander simply meant really fast and increasingly faster which in the context of the conversation was good enough. Precision wasn't important and it occurs to me that, in the vernacular, Alexander's definition is probably what most people mean when they say exponential.

Second, I now realize that, due to my bias for words, I often miss that people aren't speaking in order to convey a concept, but instead are speaking simply to emote or to convey a feeling or experience. It's not about clarity and accuracy of the communication, but instead, about projecting experience through sound.

Since I have this bias towards understanding exactly what it is that the other person is saying, I totally miss that they're not actually trying to say anything. The words are being put into space to express how they feel or what they experienced. A quantitative word might be used simply to convey the general magnitude or the importance of an experience, but not a specific value.

Third, I have such a strong bias towards understanding things that I've gotten to the point where I can't fathom not wanting to understand things. I've also intimately associated understanding something with being able to clearly articulate it. To me, saying that you understand something but just can't explain it indicates that you actually don't understand it. I've made this definitional.

This morning I've concluded that this may not be the best MO when communicating with people who say, "I understand it, I just can't explain it."

What I Learned
In the end, my desire to communicate clearly and specifically and my deeply rooted beliefs about how to do that, can be completely limit my capacity to communicate.

It occurs to me that this may be a phenomenon that we can experience as practitioners of any discipline. Doctors, due to their dedication and experience in medicine may miss options and opportunities to heal. Lawyers may miss opportunities to create legal systems that work. On and on...

Anyway, that's what's on my mind. Not sure if I communicated that well, but I feel better.

Thanks for listening.


1 comment:

  1. I love this blog! Perhaps Alexander and I should meet given the similiar stimulus we have created for you. I experience many words as feelings. I have learned that it often has nothing to do with the words but my keen ability to observe feelings, moods, behaviors, etc. that accompany words. My guess is, my definition of the words is likely often wrong but my experience of the people is more often right. Love you!


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