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The Power of Shared Language

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I was speaking with a client recently, reviewing our recent work as the organization developed a new strategy for its work.  She was reflecting on one step in the process, a meeting with the staff team where we took stock of all their existing programs in relation to the emerging strategy.

“We have transformed the way we talk with each other about our programs.  Before we had that meeting, we always argued about how to assess and prioritize the programs.  But now we have a shared way of discussing the programs in terms of their impact and profitability.  It is so much easier to discuss these things when we have a shared language!What my client and her colleagues discovered in our work together is that having a Shared Language among members of a group – whether the group members are part of the same team, work together in one organization, or come from different organizations – is core for developing shared understanding and a shared commitment to the actions that lead to results.

I have seen the issue of Shared Language show up time and again in my work with organizations.  When it is present, it has a strong lubricating effect, smoothing conversation, enabling effective listening, facilitating understanding.

But when it is absent, there can severe negative consequences as people talk past each other, unable to grasp what others are saying.  Time and again, too many people leave meetings feeling frustrated and bemoaning the lack of clarity.  This failure to understand typically shows up in one of two ways:

  • We know we don’t understand each other, but are not sure how to develop a Shared Language.  I’ve been in many meetings where technical specialists are meeting with non-specialists, and don’t realize that their use of acronyms is deepening confusion rather than enabling understanding.
  • We think we understand each other because we are using similar words and acronyms, and don’t realize we attach very different meaning to these words.  I’ve seen this happen when people in related fields use similar words (a recent example was ‘accreditation’) and misunderstand the different contexts in which the term is used by different members of the group.


Tips for developing a Shared Language

  • Check your assumptions – don’t assume that everyone in the meeting shares your familiarity with technical terms and processes.  Ask to make sure.
  • Speak up – if you hear unfamiliar words or think that some familiar words are being used in a different way, say so.  Allow the meeting to use this opportunity to check their assumptions and review the way they use certain terms.
  • Develop a shared ‘glossary’ – define critical terms and acronyms, and agree on their meaning (even if only for the duration of the meeting).
  • Create your own Language – develop terms to describe key processes or steps that everyone in the group can understand.  They can serve the purpose of helping group members reach understanding and make decisions together.


Shared Language is one of four ways that groups can develop shared understanding and commitment to the actions that lead to results.  Contact me to learn about the other three components that help groups have more effective and productive meetings – just like the client I quoted earlier. 


News Flash:


Join me on October 22, 2013 as I speak at the monthly meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Organization Development Network (CBODN) about my experience with groups working on complex, messy and ambiguous issues.  



“Unleashing Results – enabling shared understanding and commitment in groups tackling wicked problems”

I’ll be introducing my framework for helping groups work together effectively to make decisions and implement the actions that lead to breakthrough results (This covers the four components I mention in the blog above).  I’ll also share and demonstrate some methods you can use in your groups.

You can get more information and register on the CBODN website.

or contact me if you can’t make it and would like to receive a summary of these ideas.