Mind your language: understanding is everything

8th June 2020

When pursuing any kind of change initiative, ensuring that stakeholders are ‘on the same page’ is absolutely crucial.  This involves cultivating a shared understanding of the underlying objectives and rationale for the project, as well as how the change will be implemented.  In practice this is a significant challenge—we are likely to be dealing with complex situations with a whole range of different stakeholders from different backgrounds.  Communication becomes tricky: it’s relatively easy to send information but deceptively difficult to ensure that it’s been received and understood.

This complexity is compounded by physical separation.  When we have stakeholders in different locations and different time zones we are even more likely to rely on emails, documents and other written forms of communication.  This can lead to the illusion of understanding—everyone thinks they have a shared understanding, but in reality each stakeholder has drawn subtly different conclusions.


The written word is notoriously bad at communicating important nuances.  A classic exercise is to take a sentence and emphasise each word in turn.  This illustrates how a single phrase can be interpreted very differently depending on how it is read.

Let’s imagine we write a sentence such as:

“He doesn’t know that”.

Seems simple, right?  Four words with a clear meaning.  Well, maybe not… Humour me and read the following versions of this sentence out loud, emphasising the words in italics:

Emphasis Possible interpretation
He doesn’t know that The information is known within the organisation, but “he” doesn’t know it
He doesn’t know that “He” has an opinion/view, but this is not based on knowledge or evidence
He doesn’t know that “He” knows things (that might be relevant), but he doesn’t know “that”


As you probably found, changing the emphasis can subtly change the way that the phrase is interpreted.  Three possible interpretations are shown in the table above; I am sure there are many others beside this.  If this is an issue for a four word phrase, imagine how much of an issue it would be for a two hundred word email? Or a ten thousand word report?

Slang, buzzwords and jargon

Another area which can cause significant confusion is jargon or slang.  I grew up in Portsmouth, in the south of the UK, and I can say with some certainty that if you know what the word ‘squinny’ means, then you probably grew up here too (if you’re interested, it means to complain or gripe).  Unless, of course you grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, where squinny has a completely different meaning (in Des Moines, it is apparently used to describe a type of squirrel).  To add to the confusion, the dictionary definition reflects neither of these meanings instead referring to the action of squinting).  How could one word cause so much confusion?!

The same is true in organisations.  One word which seems deceptively simple but often conjures up conflicting views is ’customer’.  Rarely is there one type of customer, and different stakeholders might have very different views over which particular segments or types are being discussed.  This can lead to major misunderstandings.  This is before we even add in the cultural habit that exists in some organisations to speak in subtle euphemisms: we don’t say ’it is bad’ we say ’it’s a suboptimal solution’.  With so much variability in how these phrases could be interpreted, no wonder misunderstandings occur.

Cultivating shared understanding: precision, visualisation and feedback

The most effective way of avoiding these pitfalls will vary depending on the organisational context, however precision, visualisation and feedback are three aspects worth considering.

Firstly, precision refers to a deliberate use of language.  Creating artefacts such as a glossary can help a great deal here, and can actually help communication be more concise.  If there is one definition of ‘customer’ and the various sub-types or segments, then we can be more confident that we’ll be understood.  Precision also refers to deliberately seeking to reduce ambiguity in our language, removing slang and euphemisms and speaking plainly and as unambiguously as possible.

Visualisation refers to going beyond words.  It has often been said that a picture paints a thousand words.  If this is true, then a well-understood model probably paints ten thousand.  Accompanying our words with prototypes, use case models, storyboards and so forth can help us to show and tell.

Last, but not least, feedback is crucial.  Communication should be a dialogue, not a monologue.  We should build in opportunities for us to test that our points have been understood—and crucially that we have understood the views and perspectives of others.  Effective change is co-created not ’done to’ others, and cultivating a clear shared understanding is a crucial part of this.


by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert