“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

We need language to communicate, yet its very construction is often a barrier to achieving that objective.  I am not referring to languages from different countries here – simply how we speak to one another in a common language.  It is the common framework through which to encode our thoughts and relay to others, but so often that framework falls short in conveying our true intentions.  I have often been in meetings where there has been complete clarity of an argument formed in my mind, but when I’ve attempted an articulation it has not even scratched the surface of what I was seeking to achieve.  This can be doubly frustrating when I’ve spent a while thinking about the issue and how best to say it to avoid any potential ambiguity, by which time the moment has passed and we’ve moved onto something else!

When I was at university, I dipped into a philosophical thought of what is termed deconstruction, as promoted by the philosopher Jacques Derrida.  I say ‘dipped in’ deliberately.  First, I was doing a law degree, so philosophy was only peripheral to my studies, but more to the point I picked up Derrida’s work on a number of occasions and rapidly put it down with the onset of a this-is-too-tough derived headache.  His philosophy is much deeper than I can do justice to, but what I could glean from high level readings of his work (and Wikipedia!) and the notion that impressed me most was that language – particularly concerning concepts – can be hard stuff!  It is not just the words, but in the spoken context it is also the intonation, the cultural background of the speaker, the accent and body language and, of course, that is just on the side of the speaker/encoder.  Add into the mix how the information is decoded and interpreted by the listener, and it is a wonder that agreement can ever take place.

In the business context we use jargon to short-cut some of these issues.  The language framework adjusts and assumes a level of knowledge and understanding by the audience of these short-cuts.  In the world of investment, a large number of these short-cuts use Greek letters – alpha, beta, etc.  I’ve often found it ironic that Greek letters are meant to make life easier and often their use is counter-productive; the assumption that everyone is on the same page is flawed.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts my involvement with a charity that has people with Down syndrome on the board and it was a recent meeting that prompted me to think and write about language.  As a result of one of our ‘pause and reflect’ moments of the meeting I was asked to explain a process that we’re currently going through.  Notwithstanding my being very conscious of simplifying my language, I was aware that virtually every word had a different meaning and, absent the context in which the words were spoken, could very easily be misinterpreted or plain misunderstood.

Fortunately one of our trustees adopts the role of ringing the jargon klaxon if we start to slip into complicated verbiage and we’re increasingly finding it useful to reset the discussion and take time out to explain.  But is has also made us think about the construction of the agenda – we try and cram many items into an hour’s meeting.  Rather we should limit the items and focus on better understanding and quality of discussion.  Similarly, it has made us think about the substance of the discussion – do we all need to be involved with administrative type discussion?

We are certainly learning as we go to try and be more efficient and bring all of the group on the journey but going back to the Derrida summary – this is tough stuff.  If anyone has some good suggestions, I would be a grateful recipient!

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