When To Hit "Pause"

March 1, 2011 //

March 1, 2011
by Pia Infante

“Meanings are in people, not words.” Alfred Korzybski, Founder, Institute for General Semantics

Ok. Raise your hands if – (Really, raise them, even though we can’t actually see you. It’s good for circulation!) – you’ve heard the word transformative to describe leadership development, organizational change, social policy, or any kind of experience at least once today. I’m guessing that if you work in philanthropy or the non-profit sector that your hands are up!

And it’s not surprising. In a meeting this morning, I heard the word used fast and loose, with potentially no collective understanding of it’s meaning – until somewhere in the middle, when I hit the proverbial pause button to ask for clarification. I may have even raised my hand.

I think at some point, like with all words that spark popular use, the meaning and the concept start to become kind of fuzzy, and the use of the word becomes non-homogenous. It’s easy to imagine that we who work in the public benefit sector constantly throw abound words, phrases and concepts that we believe are “common” when, in fact, we may have quite different interpretations and perspectives. I would stop short of saying this is dangerous, though I might suggest that it is cause for a pause.

Here’s a snippet from a lively discussion about language from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation:

“Over the last several years, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation has made a concerted effort to call attention to the troubling use of jargon throughout the foundation world. Why? The use of jargon, and the confusion it creates, can damage or undercut even the most well-intentioned of foundation efforts–making it difficult for everyone to clearly understand and effectively discuss the ideas and issues that drive foundation grant making and related activities.”

I have a particular fondness for a link widely circulated on my Facebook circles for the Philanthrobabble Generator.

As TWI Board member CJ Callen wrote in a recent post, words do actually matter – and beyond that – the meaning we ascribe to them matters even more. I think that it’s vital that we stop and make meaning together. It’s often that stopping point where someone says, “what precisely do you mean when you use that word,” that the group starts to coalesce towards a common understanding. It seems to me the sooner this happens in a conversation, the more possibility and room there really is to communicate clearly and meaningfully