Nine months later, I’m reflecting on the letter I wrote to my firstborn child on his first day of school.Read More
Introduction — Two Questions & a Quote
I want to take you through a journey of something called The Semantic Triangle — utilizing the fields of communication and linguistics (which I have a degree in, so obviously, I am [not] an expert) — because this simple little triangle just might inform a healthy response to one of the most complicated, confusing, and frustrating components of human life:
How communication works.
So let’s start with two questions and a quote:
If you hear the word “orange”, what comes to mind?
It’s an important question for one reason — multiple options can be represented by the same word.
Overly simple? Yes. But this example reveals one of the foundational issues with communication and with words — we are not given a pre-determined set of words with their singular meaning. Would that make communication easier? Probably. But you can say, “Orange” and mean a color or a fruit or maybe something else entirely.
Another problem — you can say orange and it could mean nothing to you.
For example, if you didn’t subscribe to the English language, “orange” would just be a random set of squiggly lines or an interesting sound coming out of someone’s mouth. Just because it means something specific to you doesn’t require another human being to derive the same meaning. It also doesn’t require that human being to share any meaning with the word “orange” at all.
If I said the Hebrew word “melek” to an English speaking audience — it would mean nothing.
Point being, words and language aren’t as clean cut as we might wish for them to be.
Second question — how many words are added to the English language every year?
Well, depending on who you ask, anywhere from 100 to 4000, though the Oxford Dictionary usually adds about 1000 per year (and gets rid of just about as many).
So if you still needed some credibility to the ever-evolving, non pre-determined nature of words…I think that should do it.
Now for the quote:
“The finger pointing at the moon isn’t the moon.”
It’s a great way to explain metaphysics, but it also accurately describes how words & language works.
If you are feeling a bit nihilistic at this point, you are right where you need to be. Language and communication are messy. In my experience working with individuals and organizations, communication could, quite possibly, be attributed as the most common cause of issues. However, before we can discover a healthier, more productive, & more effective way to use this mysterious thing called language & communication, we need to be honest about what it is and what it isn’t.
Only then can we make communication great again.
Part One — Where Does Language Come From?
Maybe an over-simplified version of the history of language will help us.
A person made a sound or drew a shape then someone else heard or saw their attempt at communication and, finally, they agreed on what it meant.
In response to this process, you now have language.
If you delve even further into communication theory, you notice that communication is more than language — it is the passing of some sort of information from one source to another. Do babies communicate? Yup. Do they use words? Well, not as we might define them.
We will get to a standard definition soon, but let’s start with the core principles to communication — of which there are five:
Communication is Goal-Oriented (every act of communication has a purpose).
Communication is Constant & Continuous (it is ongoing in every moment — you are constantly communicating).
Communication is Transactional (there is a give and take — often referred to as message and feedback; or sender and receiver).
Communication is Relational (every communication act involves people — even if the sender and receiver is just you, which is called “Intrapersonal Communication”).
Communication is Irreversible (every communicative act is permanent…once it is out there, it is out there for good).
Now, there are a variety of implications for these various principles. We could explore the intricacies of how we have goals, whether we are aware of them or not, for every piece of communication. We could look deeper into the field of Non-Verbal Communication. We could dive into theories on the transactional model of communication and all the parts included in a communicative moment (which is incredibly and frustratingly complex). Or we could examine what is implied in the relationships that bring forth communication, especially power distinctions. And, of course, it is always a good time when you ruminate on how communication is what creates the world as we know it (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel may have said it best — “Words create worlds.”)
But our goal here is to understand where language comes from and that it is more than just having singular & absolute definitions for the words we assume are normal.
Back to that first act of language — when some being grunted to give a more effective way of working with another being and they both agreed. Whatever that first noise was, based on the principle that “Communication is Constant & Continuous,” we could conclude that this first noise was not the first act of communication. Up until this use of language, no matter how primitive it was, those beings were already communicating with each other because we are constantly communicating. The phrase “non-verbal communication” is actually quite accurate — because we are saying things all the time even if we aren’t using words.
Words, then, were a way to make that communication easier.
If instead of making a facial expression and offering a multitude of gesticulations, you could use a specific sound alongside of those facial expressions and gestures, the desire to communicate could be sped up and made more effective and efficient. Thus, somewhere along the sociological development of human beings, we started making language our primary form of communication.
Why is this important? Because it is helpful to humanize the norms of language that we may take for granted. At the dawn of history, a giant book did not fall from the sky with all the available words and their exact, precise meaning. Rather, there was a slow evolution over time that brought forth our language. The words you are reading are the result of generation after generation trying to ease the process of communicating with one another. Take heart, my friend, because if you find this comforting…you shouldn’t. This also means that the words are still evolving and the language we might assume is innate is still subject to its relativeness.
Not to get all “Tower of Babel” on you, but this means that language is a technology (though there is some debate on the exact nature of this, let’s just stick with a general definition of technology). It is not an inherent system pre-ordained in the universe that we just have to uncover and learn — it is a tool we came up with to use in order to make life better.
Communication is a construct.
The most obvious way to recognize this is to consider why different people and cultures have come up with different languages — they wanted to communicate more efficiently, so they agreed on certain sounds and images that meant certain things to their particular context and formed their own language.
Another important understanding alongside of the humanized creation of language is how the language was formed — it deals with a phrase that will come up again shortly — “shared meaning.”
If words have no inherent meaning from the book that fell out of the sky, how do we know what they mean? Consider, again, the word “orange.” This word can imply all sorts of different things, so how do I know what you mean when you use that word? I can recognize the squiggly lines or the sound as a familiar word — so there is at least some agreement — but I also have to know what you mean and share that meaning in the context.
Words don’t mean something, people do.
The only definition that exists for a word is the definition we agree on.
Ludwig Wittgenstein popularized this concept in a theory that is often referred to as “The Language Game” — essentially that you can come up with any meaning of a sound to make communication easier. Whatever definitions you assign to a particular sound or squiggly line are constructs that assist in playing the game.
There are examples of language experts who either create a language or use some old or fantasy created language and teach it to their children. Why does this work? Because they are just taking sounds and shapes and creating a shared meaning between the individuals (which also means that those children grew up to realize they couldn’t communicate those sounds and shapes to people who had not also learned them and usually defaulted to only using the culturally common version of language).
Fortunately, things like dictionaries and sociology and the forces of pop-culture have made creating shared meaning out of our linguistic constructs quite easy. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you were taught how to read, you were taught similar rules of grammar as I was, and that you were even handed definitions that became normal in our culture. This doesn’t mean that we have mastered the technology of language and finally ended its ambiguity, it just means that we have found ways to share meaning with the masses. With more globalization and centralization in political structures and cultural spheres, it is no surprise that we made a priority of creating common definitions. More effective and more efficient communication has made much progress possible (again, you wouldn’t be able to read this if shared meaning wasn’t widely established). If Kentucky Fried Chicken can be made popular in Japan, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve developed a common understanding of most words.
However, that doesn’t eliminate the fact those words have no inherent meaning — it is still a shared meaning that we came up with even if it is widely accepted.
This is often called the Proper Meaning Superstition — that words have a precise meaning. We may have created a common meaning, but we have to understand where those words and sounds and shapes and meanings came from in the first place.
They were created.
When we are honest about the nature of communication, we can begin to imagine how to more properly navigate our lives with it. Even though it feels more ambiguous and possibly more frustrating than a simple, straightforward explanation, we now are more capable to handle communication’s fragility. We can understand why communication causes such complications and, possibly, learn to avoid them.
Part Two — Pulling it all together: The Semantic Triangle
This is getting out of control, let’s just get to the “The Triangle.”
Because there are all sorts of problems that have come up so far if this stuff is true — from how this can get real nihilistic real quick to how a group of people can decide to make a word “official” in a language or dictionary even though it is just the shared meaning to babies communicating to why different languages might exist at all.
The Semantic Triangle (which is also called by lots of other names…which is quite fitting in comparison to what we’ve already discussed) is a way to give a concrete image to what is happening in communication. It’s just a geometric shape, which means that it is just a use of the communicative technology to help communicate better. Communication theorists wanted to come up with a way to make sense of all this language and shared meaning stuff.
That’s how we got the Semantic Triangle.
You have the word — let’s stick with “orange” for now — it is a sound or a bunch of squiggly lines. The word is a symbol.
Then you have the actual thing — the color or the fruit — the actual concept you are referring to. This is easier with something concrete that you can actually see or touch or hold…it gets more complicated with abstract concepts (which we will get to shortly).
Then you have what you actually mean — the meaning, or, how you interpret the sound or shapes in reference to the concept being discussed.
All three of these parts work together to create language — the symbol in reference to a concept that we deduce meaning from.
The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.
The word is not the thing and the thing is not the meaning and the meaning is not the word — they point to each other. Words or symbols, then, are the finger that points to the meaning. The concept is also a finger that points to the meaning. But the symbol can also point to the concept. And the meaning (the moon) directs itself back to the other two.
Don’t worry, I’m confused, too.
So how about an over-generalized blanket statement to further what was discussed in Part One?
The Semantic Triangle reveals that words by themselves are meaningless.
They are just arbitrary symbols.
Quite literally, they don’t mean anything.
Therefore, we came to the conclusion that words only mean what we agree they mean. Again, shared meaning. Because every symbol has to be interpreted by the person receiving the symbol to agree on the concept trying to be communicated. The finger points and there has to be a common agreement that the moon is the object of the pointing.
This is why that dictionary you use to look up a word is not a standard, set definition engrained in the fabric of the universe and why it constantly changes — because the generally accepted interpretation of words changes. A dictionary, or even a common usage among a group of people, simply exists to aid the communicative process and create shared meaning. The current definition exists as it is shared by the users; which also means that definitions can change.
If language is indeed a technology that has been influenced by the concept of the Semantic Triangle, it is also why words can mean different things and the same word can change meaning over time. For example, the word “gentleman” — which was a formal title with specific legal implications such as someone who owned land — may have been commonly understood that way at one point of human history, but now might mean something else. Or the word “meat,” which used to be a general reference to food, now means a specific type of food. Words evolve — because, I’ll say this again, they have no inherent meaning.
This is also why two people can say the same word and mean different things. Because a shape or sound only means what you want it to mean — if we happen to agree on that meaning then we will be more efficient in how we communicate with each other — but there is a necessary and ongoing process to develop that agreement. Or if I decided, when I said “orange,” that I meant the concept of snow or that I was referencing a business called “Orange” that distributed computer software, which I am certainly allowed to do, it would only work if we both understood what I was talking about.
This is why, for the “Meaning” part of the triangle, meaning only exists when it is shared.
Or, you could say, a word only has a definition based on the shared meaning two people agree on for the word. Whatever two or more people agree on, that is what a word means in that specific context.
You see, words don’t mean anything and, while that is only technically true, if we are going to use language more effectively, we need to be honest about its nature.
If a word is just a sound or some squiggles it means that words, themselves, are only symbols. Symbols, then, have no inherent meaning. There is nothing built into the fabric of the universe that gives us a sound or a squiggly line some absolute, eternal value. Our only hope is to be able to interpret the symbol in its used context. This is what we see in the triangle — that a word is not directly connected to what it represents and an interpretative jump is required to take the word and associate it with a thing. The word “orange” is not an orange and it is not a color. The written letters that, in English, spell “love” is not itself love. In a proper context with proper understanding of the shared meaning, we can make these interpretations. With physical items, this connection will be easier. With abstract concepts, well, this is why we often say that words fail.
Maybe we could say that words are like maps — helpful guides to explain what is actually being said, but not the thing itself.
As a society, this has been made easier because we have worked hard to generate shared meaning by teaching a common usage of the technology of language for what specific symbols mean in relation to their concept. This is why Oxford can produce a dictionary — it isn’t what the words mean by default, they are telling us what sounds & squiggly lines commonly are interpreted as in a democratic fashion.
But it isn’t what the word means, it is what we agree the word means for our common convenience.
You could use that same word with someone who has a different meaning for that word and now the shared usage no longer exists.
Consider the reality of translating from one language to another. If you are someone who knows how to speak multiple languages, you are probably more acutely aware of this issue. Because the shared meaning that is generally accepted for the word “naranja” in Spanish translates as “orange” in English, but the value system, perspective, and, therefore, the interpretation in Spanish won’t transcribe on a 1:1 ratio in English. If we might have different interpretations of the same sound or shape in a shared language, how much more so for different words in different languages?
What we need to realize is that though we think we might have the same definition, while it might be close, there will always be at least minor differences in how we are interpreting the meaning of what is being said.
In a more philosophical argument, you could synthesize that the only real way to know exactly what someone means is to have a lifetime of shared experiences with them. You can never fully get into the head of another; which means you will probably never fully know what they intend when they use a word.
If we are going to make communication great again, we are going to have to work with the messiness that makes communication so difficult.
That communication and, therefore, language, is a construct.
That words and sounds are symbols.
And that they have no inherent meaning, only shared meaning.
I hope you can conclude that communicating will be no easy task — there is a reason communication is often the fault of so many problems — but also that if we can harness its nature, it can certainly be utilized well.
So how do we do that?
Part Three — A Couple Added Complications
You know what I said earlier about the Communication Principles and how exploring the other principles wasn’t pertinent to our goal? I now recant that statement. Before we get to how to harness communication well, we need to cover a couple of other difficulties because, on top of the vague nature of words, there are some added complications.
While understanding the root of communication in the Semantic Triangle is the most important framework necessary to reframe our posture towards how we communicate, let’s shake up our frustration with the complexity of communicating even further. If our goal is to understand the nuances of communication with more awareness so that we can better use this tool, here are a couple of other issues to keep in mind:
1 — The Complexity of Communication Reveals Its Power — And Nothing is Going to Shape Us More
Depending on where you look and whom you talk to, you will get a variety of definitions on what communication is. However, in my exploration, this is one that emerges as the most complete:
The process of a continuous series of behaviors leading to a purpose through which people create and manage relationships exercising mutual responsibility in creating shared meaning.
Even the standard definition is weird. Who comes up with this stuff?
If you’ve read this far, you will notice several keywords that we’ve already discussed. Essentially we could break this down into three parts:
There is this constant act of giving and receiving messages that have a goal to them (Principles #1, #2, & #3).
This act shapes the people involved while being dependent on the uniqueness of each person involved (Principles #3, #4, & #5).
Which creates the shared meaning that results from the interaction (Principle #5 and pretty much all the others).
If we consider this reality every time we communicate (which is, of course, all the time), then the act starts getting even more messy. Maybe an image would help:
This diagram shows us that, along with the nature of words and the construct of language, you also have to keep in mind a myriad of other complications. To start, you have a sender and a receiver. The sender sends a message using various symbols that have meaning and the receiver receives the message. Once received, the receiver gives feedback using the same kind of message.
Except that, interchangeably and constantly, the sender and receiver switch roles. While the sender is sending a message, the receiver is also sending a message as a sender that the original sender is receiving and they are both giving feedback to those messages at the exact same time.
But then, there are a bunch of other messages impacting the communication process.
The context — which could be the physical setting, the social situation based on the nature of the individuals and their relationship, the historical setting that each brings into the process, the psychological situation of each participant, and the cultural situation that must be navigated based on who is involved, where they are from, and what values, meaning, expectations, norms, and beliefs come from their cultural understanding of the world.
Or the noise — anything that distracts from the communication. Whether external effects like sounds or visible effects of the room or the internal noise of how each participant is feeling or thinking.
You also have the channel — the component that the sender and receiver might not be in a room and they might not even be in the same space — the media or channel used to communicate a message can be almost anything or anywhere.
It would be convenient if communication was constricted to two people sitting in a vacuum of a space where they say one completely understood word at a time with no visuals, noise, context, or complexity. It would also be much less valuable.
All these parts are constantly happening and it makes for an infinitely difficult process. For something that is supposedly innate to our daily existence, this should trouble us just a little bit because we might not be intentionally understanding the very dynamic that shapes the totality of our lives.
Understanding this part of the communication dynamic should reveal that we are handling something difficult — which is why communication deserves a deeper look than we normally give it — but it should also reveal how powerful it is. Because communication deals with everything and is influenced by everything, nothing is going to shape us more. The more we are aware of its complexity, the more effective communicators we will be. The more effective communicators we are, the better we will be as human beings.
2 — Everything You Do Says Something
This complication is the outcome of Principle #2 — that you are constantly and continuously communicating…even when you aren’t talking.
The more common term for this is Non-Verbal Communication.
A couple notes on this from what we know about its impact on the communicative act:
Non-verbal communication is primary to verbal communication. A non-verbal takes precedence over something that is spoken as it is perceived to be more believable and genuine than words. Someone saying “I love you” while gritting through their teeth is an example of this.
Non-verbal communication can be intentional, but it can also be unintentional and often is the latter. We don’t always realize what we are communicating or even that we are communicating.
Non-verbal communication is ambiguous — just as with words, one act or image can have an infinite number of meanings and it is based on the audience and how they interpret it. There is no 1:1 ratio of what something means and the ensuing meaning can be different for every different context of the message or for every different receiver of the message and how they interpret it.
Non-verbal communication is multi-channeled. What does this mean? That non-verbal communication is everything except the words themselves.
There are also a plethora of non-verbal communication types:
Kinesics — any movement from your body. Eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, touch.
Paralanguage — any sound associated with the message. Pitch, volume, rate, speed, or the quality of what your voice sounds like function as paralanguage.
Vocal Interference — the extraneous sounds or vocal tics we make while saying something.
Proxemics & Spacial Usage — what is in the space, what objects are present, and how does a person exist in and use that space or those objects.
Self-Presentation — The physical appearance and sensory effects of you and the space. Scent is the most dominant to our perception, but it is everything from how you dress to what you look like to what kind of presence you give off.
I’m not sure if we realize the immensity of what this implies. You and everything involving you is a communicative act. How you speak, when you speak, the timing of your message, the faces you make, how you stand, how you sit, whether you are standing or sitting, how you look, what shirt (if any) you are wearing — these are all ways you are communicating something.
But it goes further — how you keep your house, what decorations you put in different places, the objects you call your own, how you drive, or even your profile picture you use for social media — these are all communicating something.
Is communicating something.
The responsibility this implies can be overwhelming — because non-verbal communication begs us to be aware of everything we do. There is an implied responsibility to be intentional and meaningful, not just with the words you use, but with every part of your existence.
3 — Words (and Actions) Do Create Worlds
I’ll just let this sit — once you communicate something, it is there forever.
The all too common experience is the desire to take back something you have said and realizing, in futility, that you can’t. Once you say that thing, you can’t erase it and you now have to work with the world you have created.
Your words, your actions, your thoughts, your decisions — if they are all communicative acts, then they are all permanent.
Your life will build the world as we know it.
Now, this also means that communication itself is morally neutral. Communication is not good or bad alone — it becomes good or bad, helpful or destructive, by how you use it. Such care cannot be more emphatic. You have within you a powerful tool and you need to decide how you use it.
Because however you do, it will be irreversible.
4 — Words Carry No Moral Value
This implication is a bit of a soapbox and may not be useful or, even, agreeable to you, but in light of the permanence of words alongside of the moral neutrality of communication as discussed above, I want to add this thought:
A word can’t be bad — because words don’t carry meaning in and of themselves — only a meaning can be bad. Even that, though, is subjective.
This is why our culture doesn’t use certain four letter words in some contexts, but we do in others. We understand that the shared meaning the people in those contexts have will make it a positive or negative experience.
I would really like us, as a culture, to get over the taboo of certain words by claiming they are bad words or swear words. They can be negative and if that particular word has a shared meaning that could cause harm, let’s not use it! I completely agree with that kind of restraint…its a great idea! But what else are the words capable of that we lose if we just civically try to eliminate them altogether?
At this point, we could bring up words that are almost unanimously destructive — words that specifically deal with the identity and dehumanization of other people. Because I understand that my usage of some of these words will generally cause harm, I will not write them here, but there are certain phrases or labels that get put on groups of people that can, and normally are, painful. However, because words have no inherent meaning, I would caution against legislating them as unusable. The reason why is because that then keeps us from allowing the word to evolve. As a person not associated with the victim-role of these words, but rather with the potential destruction (namely, I am male, white, heterosexual, and American), I will oblige that I am not going to be the one to subvert its destructive usage and I will continue to refrain from using them because of the shared meaning that my moral decision reveals will be negative. But if we eliminate the usage altogether, we steal the opportunity for the people subjugated by those words to subvert them into powerful rebellion.
In these contexts, I will use my communicative power to refrain from destructive use while allowing those who have been harmed to determine how they choose to interact with said words.
Again, not because the word is bad, but the meaning has become bad. Therefore, individuals need to make moral decisions on how they will use words with such meaning — and take responsibility for the permanence such usage will cause.
Back to the “bad words” of culture, though — there is an example that comes from my personal experience of how we might process making these determinations on shared meanings that are less obvious as the example above.
For example, sometimes my children, who are quite young, will “swear” as you might say. They might drop something and it breaks and innocently react with, “Aw, fuck.” Or they might be given some un-ideal news and respond with, “Dammit”. In our familial context, we try to be adamant that those words aren’t bad — but we always push to be clear on the shared meaning.
“What did you mean when you said that?” is usually the follow up question. If they can adequately explain their “concept” and have it result in a healthy “meaning” then that’s fine. If they aren’t able to do that, we ask them not to use that word in that way again. Either they use discourse to defend a proper usage that makes moral sense in the context or they repent from its usage — because the word isn’t bad, but the meaning might be. Our moral compass, then, needs to direct how we use the meaning of words (and not just “swear” words, by the way, but all words — I’ve noticed that a lot of people who have legislated a refrain from certain words still use language and communication destructively). My spouse and I want our children to be aware of this communicative dynamic.
But then there is a larger layer — because there is a macro meaning they must be aware of — so we always tell them, “Be careful of who you say that around…some people don’t understand those words the same way you do.”
Some people can’t handle an F-Bomb…and we need to be okay with that, too.
Bad parenting? Maybe. But we desperately want for our offspring to communicate well, not just avoid certain words because culture tells us to.
This concept is important because it makes the usage of words more complicated. Harping to Orwell’s “1984” and the concept of New-Speak shows the danger of legislating communication. It is a concept called Epistemological Injustice where we determine for others what can and cannot be said or known and implies that certain words might be inherently bad.
A better way to navigate how to determine the usage of words and their moral outcome (whether they are positive or destructive) is through community — by knowing, as much as possible, the full context of another as to do as little harm as possible. We can only think contextually and act appropriately when it comes to words. Therefore, we should stop saying certain words are “bad.”
5 — Communication is What Defines Your Existence
Here are just some of the functions of communication that should prompt us to take this more seriously:
Communication is how we meet our social and psychological needs.
Communication is the medium for us to achieve our goals in daily, corporate, or even organizational life.
Communication is how we develop a sense of self — namely that our self is social and the world arounds us reflects back to us who we are like a mirror. We find out who we are from others.
Communication is how we acquire information.
If we are going to become who we are not yet, but ought to be — understanding our communicative life that we seemingly take for granted might be the best place to start.
Communication is the foundation for who we will become & how we will meet our needs.
If only we had some concepts to help us do this better…
If only we could make communication great again!
Part Four — How To Make Communication Great Again
Certainly, this tag — “make communication great again” — isn’t meant to be a factual statement, I’m just playing with a phrase so that we might consider re-thinking our assumptions about the communication process that seems so natural and yet also proves so difficult. Communicating is one of the most taken for granted parts of our lives while also being one of the most common and one of the most impactful. It is the thing we use every day that we tend to think the least about.
Let’s be honest, we’re not going to make communication great again — it will always be a road full of fallacy and complication. It is also debatable whether or not it was ever “great,” by whatever definition you interpret that word to be, in the first place.
What we can do is make communication healthier.
Hopefully, by considering all of these nuances in where language comes from, what is happening in the communicative act, and why communication is so fervently complex we will be able to incorporate these concepts to help make our communication better.
So a couple implications and then a final example:
1 — Acknowledge Your Limitations
You are reading this, understanding it in your own unique way based on how you interpret the meaning of the hundreds of symbols being used called words — this means we aren’t going to completely see this the same way.
My communication will never fully align with yours because my view of the world will never be the exact same as yours. Even how you use the word orange — though we might agree in the moment you are referencing a color — how you perceive the color, the history you have with the color, and the meaning you ascribe to the color will always be a little bit different. Needless to say, whenever you communicate, you are opening the door for disagreement.
You will never fully communicate exactly what you are trying to communicate.
Because language is limited.
Therefore, we must use language with an awareness of its limitations.
Unless you can fully get inside my head and share every piece of context with me without bringing any of your own, our communication will never be entirely symmetrical. This writing doesn’t completely work for this reason. We may have some semblance of agreement on how we interpret the meaning of each and every single word, but we aren’t going to fully understand what I am communicating in the same exact way.
This isn’t all bad — it means we have the unique expression of billions of people to add to the world’s story — but it does mean it is messy.
Once we acknowledge our limitations to communicate, we will be able to utilize its diversity.
Each particular perspective adds value. Each language that exists expresses a different take on existence (which is why it is such a bummer when a language goes extinct — whether because of the elimination of that group of people or because of the recipients of that language trading theirs for a more common one. When a language doesn’t get passed on, it might make the world more convenient, but we lose something of human history in the process). This is related to how you think about your perspective (See: “Let’s Talk About Your Perspective”) and how you engage with the process of disagreement (See: “Mapmaking Vs. Arguing”).
It would be convenient to have exact definitions that are completely fixed implanted into our brains at birth, but we don’t…and I don’t know that this convenience would necessarily be a good thing because we would lose the potential of a diversity of voices.
We will have to accept the limitations and, therefore, the messiness of language.
And when we do, we can actually have a conversation to know the world a little more fully by utilizing that messiness that comes from the unique individual.
Accepting our limitations and learning to work with them will not be convenient in the short term.
But it might be more powerful in the long run.
2 — Be Aware of the Entire Communication Process
To make our communication great, we need to be continuously aware of every facet of the communication process.
I invite you, therefore, to the discipline of waking up to the vast components of the communication model in your life.
At the core of this is determining what message the other is trying to send and being honest about what message you are trying to send. But then you can take this further by considering all of the different factors in play during a given communication moment:
What messages are you sending in response to their message (feedback)?
Who is the sender of a particular message?
Who is the intended receiver?
Are there any unintended receivers?
What is the medium being used to send this message?
How does that medium positively or negatively affect the intended message?
Are there any outside influences impairing or affirming the message?
What is the context of the message — especially in relation to word choice?
Is there any noise that is conflating the message?
What are the role of non-verbals in the message?
The more awareness we can have of the variety of pieces involved in our communication, the more poignantly we will be able to encode and decode what is being said.
3 — Be Honest About Your Semantic Triangle
Back to the moon — if you point to it, your finger is not the goal of your communicative act…the moon is.
We have to see that the word you use or the non-verbal you are communicating with is a medium to get at what you really want to point to — the concept or the meaning.
Our culture tends to be very loose with words — we talk a lot, but we don’t always point to something. In our common and frequent usage, then, very familiar words can become unfamiliar. If we are going to navigate the complex & messy situation we find ourselves in with words being so subjective and contextual, we will need to learn to differentiate between what we say and what we mean.
The invitation here is to begin processing what you are pointing to when you use a particular word. Instead of starting with a word, then, you might want to start with the concept (or the meaning) and then adapt to your contextual audience to best communicate. Choosing the best symbol to use will require empathy and will change depending on various contexts. For more on the role of empathy in the communication process, see “How to Use Empathy For Better Communication.”
4 — Communicate With Clarity
If this whole ‘nature of words’ thing is true — then it means we’ve got some work to do.
If we are going to communicate well, we can’t just assume that people will either learn our meaning or be left out of the loop. We will have to go a step further.
We will have to be more intentional & deliberate in communication. If we don’t, we will drift away from one another and lose the possibility of further, more intimate, and more meaningful connection.
If we do this extra work, we will be able to transcend our non-parallel means to still navigate the world effectively.
So for example, if you are translating a language — the more depth you can give to the words being used, the more you can assimilate your perspective and intended meaning, the better the communicative outcome will be.
If you are trying to describe something to someone, especially a child, using words needs to be intertwined with pointing to concepts and further unpacking meaning so that it can be shared.
This is why there is a difference between teaching a child to talk in a language and teaching a child to communicate using language. Young minds can replicate and repeat words all day, but creating a shared understanding for what they mean is more difficult.
Essentially, communicating should be slower and it should be more direct.
Because the goal of communication is shared meaning.
Yet, slower and direct is not always desirable. However, if we can accept the compromises that come with a dependence on such a complex technology, we might discover more meaningful and more effective communication. Otherwise, we just assume we know what someone means and the familiarity drifts towards unfamiliarity.
Clear and direct communicating that takes the time to unpack meaning will lead to better shared meaning — and the best way to make communication great again is to make our communication relevantly shared with the people we desire to connect with. (For more on direct communication, see: “Say It Like You (Actually) Mean It.”)
We ought to take more intentionality, more time, and more awareness of our subjectivity if we are to keep this technology aiding & upholding our human journey as opposed to becoming meaningless jabber.
A Practical Example
Have you ever said you “love” someone?
Well, the English expression of “love” is already different from other technological inventions of language because love has lots of meanings. Most language groups, therefore, have lots of different words to express the different meanings that can be implied for the different kinds of “love”. My background has shown Koine Greek as a great example of a language with a more nuanced take on what we call “love.”
So let’s say you are the stick figure in the middle of the triangle and you express the symbol “love” (it’s the heart at the top). This gets tricky because for the word “orange” its concept is concrete. Love, however, is abstract. You can know love, but it is hard to draw it.
Therefore, when you say the word “love” you have to know the concept you are referring to — which could be an infinite amount of options. You can say you love sports and you can say you love your spouse. Same words, different meaning (I assume).
The next question would then be, “What do you mean by that?” Or better put — what is love? (baby don’t hurt me…dont’ hurt me…no more). Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Can you see why this might get a little difficult when you are trying to tell another person you love them?
Can you see why it might be possible for you to say the word love, but without the shared meaning of what you are implying, this could get interpreted differently — or it could just go without being recognized as anything significant because you said a word that is not rooted in any shared meaning.
The word itself is not love and you can say it all day, but it only means something when you go through the process of making it into something real with who you are communicating with. The non-verbals involved and the time you take to show that love and expound on your meaning of how you use the word — eventually you will end up with a shared meaning of what you intended in the first place.
But it will take time.
And it will take a full embodiment of the communicative process.
If we can be as intentional with all of our words as we ought to be with the word “love” — we will make communication great again!
Last Retorts (The Simple Version of Everything I Just Said)
You can use words and construct culture and institutions and identities with words, but you must acknowledge their limitations & their constant evolution.
How we communicate with words must assume their fragility — that we will then work to be clear on developing shared meanings and accept that the words we use are a medium standing in for the real thing (the finger pointing at the moon) that we are hoping to communicate.
Which also means acknowledging their dynamic nature — that the meaning and symbolism of any word is not static and it will change over time.
In an age of pseudo-online-based relationships, our communication has become quite dismissive.
In the age of transience, our words have avoided the hard work of developing shared meaning.
In an age where communication is so assumed, our communication has lost awareness of the nuance that can make or break the messages we intend to send.
We need to re-claim our words.
We need to embrace what it means for this technology of language & communication to do what it was created to do — help us thrive together.
If we don’t do this, we will add to the already constant confusion of interacting with one another. If we do enact this, we will embrace a patience and understanding that the technology is meant to bring.
The awareness of the nature of words, with all its vague ambiguity and frustrating difficulty, is what might make our communication great again…or at least allow it to be the effective tool it is meant to be.
May you be more aware of the nature of your communication and may it exponentially move us all towards health.
Introduction — Are We Allowed to Talk About This?
While changing yourself is a noble pursuit that is also of quite topical interest in culture today, changing other people is a little less romanticized…even though it actually more likely to be pursued by most of us. It kind of feels like we aren’t supposed to talk about this as there is an unhealthy stereotype that dominates the discussion, but, if we are honest, changing other people is a seemingly default posture in human nature.
We often yearn to change other people more than we actually want to change ourselves.
So we might as well talk about it.
Often, moving people from point A to B to C is taboo because of the associated implications that involve lots of destructive, selfish, and unproductive experiences in doing so. The normal way of changing others hasn’t exactly been healthy. How, then, do we channel this motivation that often pervades our relational impulses to be more constructive?
Again, nobility would tell us, “Don’t try to change other people. Control only what you can control. Don’t take responsibility for others.”
I would agree.
That posture of control often results in impersonal, selfish ambition that ought to be avoided. However, simply by being alive and in contact with another being, you are going to change them — it is unavoidable. The question isn’t, “Do I change other people or not?” The question is, “How do I navigate my interactions with other beings so that my impact is healthy, other-centered, and constructive for everyone involved?”
You can certainly be above the toxic control that dominates this discussion, but high and might aside, especially in the most trafficked relationships of our daily existence, what is the best way to interact with the inevitability and, let’s be honest, the desire to change other people?
First from a Korean folktale, then a little science, theology, psychology, and, finally, a quote that has vastly shaped how I lead, parent, and interact with my community.
Part One — The Tiger’s Whisker ( A Korean Folktale)
There was a young spouse, just several years into her marriage, who was at her wit’s end. Her husband had always been a gentle, tender, and loving mate before he had left for the wars. Upon his return, however, he was consistently cross, angry, and unpredictable to the point that she was afraid to live with him. Occasionally she would glimpse his former self of the man she had come to know and love, but the resentment had built exponentially and their relationship was dire.
When her situation became unbearable, she sought out a wise sage who lived high in the mountains. She climbed for many days until finally reaching an obscure cave-like structure and, as she approached the open doorway, she heard a voice echo from inside,
“I hear you. What is your need?”
The woman stepped back at the announcement as the wise sage had not yet turned her back. Unsure of how to proceed the wife explained her situation and her deep desire for her husband to change.
The wise sage heard the woman’s story and simply said,
“What do you expect me to do about this?”
The wife had no certainty on recommendations she was apt to give such a wise sage and simply offered for the sage the most simple solution she assumed wise sages did — to make her a potion or drink that would do the trick and put everything right.
The wise sage responded that no such potion exists, though, as she thought longer, she supposed one could be concocted. The wise sage explained,
“You will need to bring me a blade of grass from a fertile marsh and a peppercorn.”
The wife was relieved at the ease of this task, but just as she was about to leave the cave, the wise sage finally turned around, looked her straight in the eyes and said,
“But there is one more ingredient that will be necessary to cure your situation. It is an unusual ingredient, but in order to change your husband, the potion shall call for the whisker of a live tiger.”
“What!” the woman exclaimed. “That is impossible.”
But after getting no response from the sage who had again turned her back, the woman realized that finding this whisker was her only hope. She made her way down the mountain and, easily enough, found the blade of grass and peppercorn.
Now she was faced with her impossible task of retrieving a whisker from a live tiger.
That night she barely slept, tossing and turning over the overwhelming task ahead of her. She decided to get up early with a rice bowl covered in meat sauce and proceeded to the mountainside where a tiger was known to live. She placed the rice bowl in the open grass and hurried away, afraid of getting confronted by such a powerful creature. As she had fallen asleep, she woke up, looked out to the grass and saw that the rice bowl was gone. Disappointed that she missed her opportunity, she returned with more rice the next day, placed it in the same spot, and, again, retreated. As before, she woke up to see the rice bowl gone.
Again she put out rice, but this time she noticed the creature stir in anticipation of a meal as soon as she walked away. The woman watched the majestic tiger graciously walk up to the bowl and eat the rice before quickly proceeding out of sight. Weeks later, after providing rice every day, she returned as normal with her rice bowl, but this time the tiger came out to meet her, ate the food, and scampered away. Several days later, she noticed that, this time, the tiger sat waiting in the open grass as the woman approached in expectation of the next bowl of rice.
Weeks had now passed and the tiger had grown fond of this woman who provided such pleasant food. The woman’s patience and dedication had grown on the tiger and the powerful creature now allowed the woman to stroke its fleece.
Upon finishing the rice bowl that day, the tiger did not return to its shelter, but stayed near the woman. The next day, there was even more connection as the tiger, after finishing the rice bowl, followed the woman to the nearby trees where the woman often waited and, as they sat down, the tiger took rest laying its head on her lap.
“Finally,” said the woman, “I am close enough to the tiger to retrieve a whisker,” and she took out her knife and snipped a whisker from the live tiger’s face.
Immediately, she ran up the mountain, full of exuberance, and stood in the door to the wise sage’s cave.
The wise sage was still sitting with her face away from the door and spoke softly to the woman,
“I hear you. You have come back. Tell me, do you have all of the ingredients for the potion?”
“Yes,” the woman replied, “I have the blade of grass from a fertile marsh, a peppercorn, and finally, after many weeks, I have now retrieved the whisker of a live tiger.”
The woman then told the story of her daily task of patiently developing the connection that changed the tiger’s response to her. When she finished, the wise sage took the tiger whisker and released it into the wind never to be seen again.
The woman took several steps in an attempt to catch the whisker as if the sage had made a dreadful mistake, but in seeing that the sage made no effort to catch the whisker now flying off the mountain the woman turned to the wise sage with a furious rage, “Why did you do that? It took me weeks to retrieve what you had asked and now it is gone forever!”
The wise sage turned to face the woman and said,
“I told you, no such potion exists to change your husband. The only thing that will change him is what you have learned by retrieving this whisker. A potion is not what you need — only take what you have learned and your marriage will be restored.”
Part Two — Control & Violence
Here’s how you don’t change other people:
If you force your will on another being, not only is it selfish and probably more about you than them, but the other will sense your control and rebel. At this point, even if they do change, it was out of submission, not empowerment and the chances of it sustaining healthily are minimal.
Take a marriage, for example.
Let’s say one spouse has an unhealthy habit or character trait that the other spouse despises. Now, the spouse changing their partner may be out of good intent — that this issue contributes unhealth to the relationship and, if it would just change, everything would be better. So the husband or wife, in an attempt to change their spouse, gets critical. They just remind them of their fault and threatens that, unless they change, the relationship isn’t going to work and it will be their fault. Which gets degrading and toxic and divisive real quick.
Critique can be a form of judgment.
And judgment is often a form of control.
Which is, often, an act of violence — mostly emotional & mental, but can often manifest itself physically, too.
Let’s analyze your life for a moment — if you’ve ever had someone unabashedly shame or critique or attack you, how often is your response, “You know, you are right, I’ll change my behavior immediately!”? Not only can we usually smell being controlled, but our natural response to critique is typically defense.
So what is the best way to move someone from point A to B to C?
I’m glad you asked.
Part Three — Let Them Pull Themselves Into Their Future
Think of moving someone from point A to point B to point C as a series of steps that have more to do with you than with them. Our biggest mistake, and the reason changing other people has such a negative, taboo resonance, is that we make ourselves the primary beneficiary and, therefore, character in the other person’s change.
In general, then, here are the three overarching steps necessary to changing another person.
The First Step to Changing Another Person
If you want someone to change, the first requirement is to begin by checking yourself.
If there is any indication that this is actually for you and not for the other person or the good of the larger body, then drop it. Or if you sense you are carrying some anger or vengeance or negative perspectives into the situation, deal with yourself first.
The first step is about noticing if there is any selfishness or an agenda rooted in your desire for changing that person. Often, what we want to change in others is simply something we don’t like or prefer — but preferences are no reason to try and change someone. It might be worth a conversation, but if your motivation doesn’t have the best interests of the other in mind then either your posture needs adjusted or your motivation needs to change.
Indeed, changing another person inextricably deals with, first, changing yourself.
You cannot bring someone into health and life and peace if you are not in a place of health and life and peace. You can only offer what you have already harnessed.
The calm, non-anxious presence that has no agenda will not only lead to healthy development for another, but it will bring forth a posture full of health in yourself, too.
The Second Step to Changing Another Person
Compelling someone else towards change will also require you to practice restraint — to avoid the violent, critical, controlling tendency we so often have.
Because in seeing unhealth or injustice or wrong or failure or inadequacy or damage you are going to want to attack it. But, at the least, your critical attack won’t have much of an effect and, at the worst, will only increase the unhealth. You have to, to some degree, accept that their change won’t magically enact itself on your timetable or through your action…because change is hard and it happens slowly.
No matter how much you have seen the light or have the right answer or know what is best — the other person will have to own this themselves. You can help them to see it. You can guide them to discover where they need to go, but you can’t force them. You can’t take a horse where it doesn’t want to go. How much more is this true for a human being?
Wherever they need to go, they have to take themselves there — your only job is to help.
The Third Step to Changing Another Person
Once you’ve done the above, there is only one response I can recommend:
Love them into their future.
At every moment where you want to critique and impose yourself and show them just how wrong or bad they are…do the opposite:
Start treating them as if they are everything you long for them to be.
Imagine what a healthy relationship or organization or community is and begin leaning into that first. Talk to them as if they are already there. Give them responsibility and opportunity as if they have already arrived and it will create an affirmative lens through which they now see themselves.
Call it “self-signaling” or “pre-cognition” but it is essentially creating an environment for their attitude to bring forth different behavior. You are giving them a lens to see themselves through that will assist in determining a new trajectory.
However, if you have not first check yourself, your attempt will be negated. Until you alleviate yourself and the other of your stake in the game, whatever goal you have will be forever in the distance and will be frustrating for both parties involved. Having an agenda, approaching via control is the first mistake we make. It is also the natural course of action.
Rid yourself of the intention that is motivated by self-gain.
And restrain yourself from being the primary character in the other’s movement from A to B to C.
Only then will you be able to have the kind of presence that, unobtrusively, allows them to pull themselves into a different kind of future.
Part Four — To What Can This Be Compared? The posture of prophecy
Once we’ve prepped the grounds of our presence to actually make changing someone possible, how do we actually do it?
There is a theological perspective of this that often has been corrupted to mean something else. It is the gift of communal interaction called “prophecy”.
In the Christian & Jewish tradition, prophecy could be defined as “the building up of who you really are." You are confronting the person, but not with negativity. You confront a situation or problem by speaking to it in a way that compels them to change.
Your spouse forgets the schedule or loses their keys all the time? Speak to them and treat them as if they are already a person who remembers.
Your partner often speaks demeaningly to you? Treat them as if they are the person who loves you unconditionally and name the goodness that is still there though it may be hidden.
Your child is a bit violent and often resorts to lashing out on others in anger? Name for them that they are already gentle and loving and that their violence is not their innate nature.
Your organization needs to change its identity? Function a half step ahead by practicing that identity until it becomes normal.
When you engage in the relationship with the assumption that they are already that which is the hoped for change, you reflect their life to them in a way that allows for the person to see themselves differently and it creates a new narrative, not of shame for their failure, but of wandering. Forgetting the keys or enacting violence is not who they are, it is a misstep from who they really are.
The critical form of changing other people begins with who they are not.
The prophetic form of changing other people begins with who they truly are.
You confront what is happening by naming how they’ve wandered, but then you reconstruct the narrative by showing them the better version that is already inside of them just waiting to come out.
Your role, now that you have properly alleviated yourself from the active role of primary beneficiary and have rid yourself of an agenda leading to control, are able to be passively present in a way that reveals to them a discovery they can own for themselves. You speak and interact with them divested of your own interests which makes possible the act of trust. Now you are able to, without selfish gain, speak to them a narrative they can own in relationship to you.
The posture of prophecy is now possible because you are a voice that speaks to them, not for them. You are a bystander in their life to be trusted. When this is no longer about you, but a genuine love for them, it changes how you interact with their change.
This leads us away from the critical, the controlling, the violent and into the life giving that truly enables a new future to be enacted. I think the ancient wisdom of communal prophecy is a good way to understand this.
Part five — To What Can this Be Compared? The Pygmalion Effect
Here’s another way to articulate how the change of another being can happen (again, once you’ve dealt with yourself) that comes from the field of psychology.
In educational circles this is called the “Pygmalion Effect” based on several studies where different sets of students were treated differently even though they all had the same test scores.
One group was treated as if they were the top students capable of getting high scores because they were smart. The other group was told that they weren’t capable of attaining the higher standard and they were the average students, at best.
Students who were at the same level began scoring grades in reflection of how they were treated. Each set of students lived into what they were told with the students who were told they were at the top performing at the top and the students who were told they were average scoring very average grades.
The picture painted of who they were determined who they became.
We function as a self-fulfilling prophecy of what we believe about ourselves. You want to change someone, speak to them who they are capable of being — paint the picture that who they can become is already inside of them — and it will shape how they see & what the believe about who they are resulting in congruent behaviors with that narrative.
This might be best described by Antoine de Saint Euxpery:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.
Instead, teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.”
Cast the vision for who they are.
Affirm the way of being that ought to be.
Create the destination for what is possible.
And you can be sure that they will sail into those beautiful waters.
Conclusion — Don’t Forget This
First, divest yourself of interests (because the only person you can control is you).
You are not responsible for another’s behavior and the only person you can actually change is you. However, you can be responsible to other people and this starts with you taking responsibility for yourself; of you being a particular kind of person that is divested of any interests pertaining to what you will gain from their change.
Whatever change you are hoping to bring to another person will begin with ridding yourself of the change you are hoping to bring that person. Worry about you. Be the character of your story, not theirs. Don’t take responsibility for them because then you will truly be able to be responsible to them. You will be able to speak to, impact, and compel that person into their own story by placing yourself outside of it.
Second, conditioning is manipulation and manipulation is control.
Classical conditioning is, sort of, a way of tricking someone to take on new behaviors via rewards or punishments. Conditioning someone, then, still implies you have stake in the game of their life and you are an active player in that game. Prophecy, pygmalion, and the story of the Tiger’s whisker are meant to compel us to the opposite of conditioning. It starts with you removing yourself from the outcome and empowering them.
Third, not critiquing will cost you something.
If you wait for them to change and only critique them in the meantime…it will never happen. But if you take the first step, if you do the hard thing and treat them for what you know they can be, it just might create a fertile soil to give them space to begin leaning into their own new future.
You become a beacon by your willingness to act differently (divesting yourself of interests, not conditioning, etc) and, in empowering them, it creates a hope that inspires that new direction as opposed to condemning the current one or forcing it on them.
Changing another person begins with you creating the new normal like a woman getting close enough to the tiger to pluck a whisker.
It is the slow, patient process of creating a new environment that facilitates a new future — and wherever you want them to go…it will begin with you.
If you remind someone what they aren’t, that will be the only lens through which they see themselves.
If you remind them what they are, it begins pulling them into that future which is now possible.
Everyone and everything will be healthier if you do.