How do we understand one another?

There is a common belief that 90% of communication is nonverbal. Whilst this figure has been debated vigorously I am not going to deny that a lot of what someone says can be seen in their facial expression or body language. But let’s give a thought to the importance of language in all this. In a phone call we can’t see the person we are speaking to and judge their facial expression and in an email or SMS we can’t even get their tone of voice. Language is still an important part of the way we communicate and understand each other.

I have a story about something which got me thinking. I recently started using Microsoft SharePoint at work and I admit that although I am relatively computer-literate I had no idea what it was. I asked our IT manager for a brief summary of this new piece of software and the benefits it would provide and got some short responses containing the words ‘multi-function collaboration interface’ and ‘knowledge capture tool’. What made me start thinking was the fact that I understood what he meant. Whilst in itself this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise it became odd when I started to think about it in terms of the context these words were used in. Sometimes it can be very to communicate with people who work in IT because of the technical language that infuses their work.

There are many ‘private languages’ in our lives. Speaking to someone working in IT requires knowledge of many terms which are generally not used in common English, or have different contextual meanings. This is not a unique area, for example, I speak several ‘languages’, at university I learnt how to speak philosophy. Words were unbound and new terms were created for every essay I wrote. Words like ‘qualia’ ‘meme’ ‘bliks’ were created to encapsulate concepts that did not fit within the scheme of everyday language. Even existing words took on new meanings in a philosophical context, ‘utility’ became Mill’s measure of value and Sartre’s ‘bad faith’ became a form of self-deception. The common trend between these languages is an effort to convey meaning and foster understanding.

Everyone has their own jargon that they use in one aspect of their life or another. Time scales and deliverables in business, time signatures and riffs in music, from slang in the playground to Latin in the courtroom the English language exists in many forms. Each form has its own meanings and history as well as a culture. Language is a tool which we shape to fit the task at hand and we all use it in different forms. Some people have a ‘phone voice’ others a ‘singing voice’ or an ‘acting voice’. Just as we adopt tones and facial expressions our language evolves alongside the context we use it in.

However it is in psychology that we find a clear link between a private language and an attempt to further understanding. Some individuals you encounter in psychology are unable to express things in a manner which others can understand fully. Without that understanding how can trust be gained or the individual helped? To these ends psychology has created many terms to categorise mental illness and psychological conditions. Some of these are now in general use, things like schizophrenia and manic-depressive. Language is a powerful tool and each form of it has rules that, once understood, give the user enhanced knowledge of the concepts in question. Some language slips into our day to day lives and can occasionally create confusion. In this sense it can often be difficult to stop, “taking your work home with you”.

Sometimes this crossover can be helpful. Some languages are geared towards improving everyday understanding of others and, when used regularly, keep you aware of the importance of learning more about yourself and those around you. This can apply equally importantly to business as to time at home or out with friends. One form of language that has been created for this purpose can be found in psychometrics and personal learning and development organisations. By trying to quantify personal qualities they create a language which defines these qualities. Whilst it has been said that “to define is to limit” definition itself aids knowledge by promoting curiosity. If we start asking ourselves why these qualities are labelled as Logical and others are labelled as Empathetic (two qualities taken from Lumina Learning’s Spark portrait) we increase our understanding about those qualities in ourselves.

Psychometrics invite self-reflection and self-development (which is good as that is their aim) not only in the way they measure personal qualities but also in the methods and processes they teach learners to use when they are trying to get to know other people. Lumina Learning teaches the importance of ‘Speed Reading’ a method of getting to know a person and understanding them through the personal qualities they display in their behaviour and speech. This then leads on to something I view as even more important which Lumina Learning terms ‘Building Rapport’. Building rapport is based on the awareness gained from speed reading and helps you to adapt your communication to ensure that your meaning is clearly understood by the person you are talking to. This can range from speaking directly and standing up for your beliefs, to appealing to facts and figures to support your case or appealing to their emotional side. Although the terms used by this organisation are not universal I think the desire to connect with other people probably is. Language, in almost every sense, is a medium people use to connect to one another and whether you’re on a date or on a skype call the language you use impacts the connection you make.

I hope these thoughts prompt you to note the language you use today and ask yourself how it helps you to connect with others. Now, as I lack the necessary language to convey my meaning I will share something with you to build understanding, the private language of Antonio Porchia (Voces) “What words say does not last. The words last. Because words are always the same, and what they say is never the same.”

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