The power of shared language

I try to avoid lengthy legal documents. Two of my sisters are lawyers and I sometimes joke – entirely without justification – that even their birthday cards, when you take into account the various caveats and disclaimers, run to several pages. But lawyers can (and I can’t really believe I’m actually writing this) teach us something about effective communication.

The thing that tickles me most about contracts and other documents written in legalese is the lengthy list of definitions that inevitably appears fairly early on. As if concepts such as ‘client’, ‘consultant’ and ‘report’ are sufficiently complex that they require several paragraphs of additional text to make sure that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.

I’m being flippant, of course, but the fact is that this approach does, indeed, make good sense. Because language is incredibly important. And it’s vital, in any context, that we each know what everyone else is talking about. Words do mean different things to different people. And we often only discover this when it’s become a problem.

I worked recently with one of my clients to develop a consistent approach to project management across various teams within the organisation. On the face of it, everybody seemed to be doing things in a very different way. It soon became apparent, though, that this wasn’t really the case.

They just had different ways of talking about what they did and how they did it. They didn’t have a shared language.

By creating a common understanding of what we meant by project management and a shared vocabulary to describe it, we were able to establish what was already happening in a fairly consistent fashion, to identify those areas where they actually did do things differently and to find ways to harmonise them.

Communication within complex organisations can be hard enough at the best of times. But communication when people are speaking different languages, at times without even realising that this is the case, makes things so much harder. So take a leaf out of your lawyer’s book (I still can’t believe I’m writing this) and start by defining your terms.

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