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Have You Thanked Mr. Webster Lately?

I remember the meandering car ride well; the sweeping views of deep green oaks rising from golden rolling hills. As my husband navigated the twists and turns of the foothills, we volleyed a casual conversation about the importance of things verses people verses experiences. Little did I know, an incognito six-letter word was about to revolutionize the way I thought about dialogue, language, and communication.

“Well, you know,” I said, “I’m really just a simple girl.”

The car fell silent… I glanced over to make sure my husband still had a pulse. I saw an unusual tightness in his jaw and subtle tension surrounding his demeanor. Ironically, I had used this word in a similar context at least two other times within the last few months. However, in this moment, I realized we must be experiencing a disconnect. After all, I believed I was saying something positive, while my husband’s manner conveyed a possible negative connotation for him.

I said, “I’m sensing you might be having difficulty with what I just said. Would you share with me what simple means to you?”

Right there, in that moment I realized the power and importance of definition. I would come to learn that he associated my use of the word “simple” with “simpleton” (meaning unintelligent or foolish). On the other hand, I was trying to communicate that I was straight-forward, uncomplicated, and undemanding (low-maintenance).

Communication in general requires an understanding of language, words, and definitions. Effective and beneficial communication requires that we be good listeners and not assume that everyone holds the same definition of a given word. This is why coaches will often ask, “What does {insert word} mean to you?” As coaches, it is important to confirm what we think we are hearing our clients express. Clarifying questions (like asking what a word means), allows us to learn more about the client, their perceptions, their definitions, and their mindset. While coaching is a learned skill, it is at its finest when artistically tailored to the individual client and their personality and dreams for the life they want to create. Therefore, clarifying questions are critical to fostering a deeper understanding of others and their definitions and interpretations of words, experiences, and life.

... understanding the personal definitions of ourselves and others can help us know and become known on a deeper level.

Ultimately, without a “meaning” or “known definition” a word is simply a series of letters or a verbal utterance. Think of it like someone speaking to you in a foreign language that you don’t understand, it will basically be meaningless to you, even though it certainly has meaning to the person speaking. So, we want to make sure, we are “speaking the same language” and clearly understanding the associated meanings and definitions. It is, after all, the definition that gives a word or utterance, its meaning and import.

So… have you thanked Mr. Webster lately? Although the first dictionaries predate Christ, many of us are most familiar with the American version by Noah Webster (originally published in 1806). Regardless of whether you typically prefer the offerings of Webster or Oxford… understanding the personal definitions of ourselves and others can help us know and become known on a deeper level. And, they can turn a misunderstanding - and potentially quiet car ride - into sweet music for our souls with ah-ha moments offering deeper connection!


Coach's Encouragement:

  • This week try asking someone about their definition of a word which they use in the course of a casual conversation.

  • Identify whether your own definition is an exact match, slightly different, or markedly different.

  • Look up the word in several dictionaries and a Thesaurus. How do the definitions differ?

  • Remember – This is not about whose definition is “more right”. Rather, this is all about gaining a deeper understanding that our perspectives and definitions can differ from others; which means grace is a must and clarifying questions exponentially boost our emotional intelligence!

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