Four Words That Can Transform Your Conversations

Two brains interacting

One of the greatest pitfalls in all conversations is assuming you know what people mean by the words they use.

Unless preparing for an interview or difficult conversation, most people do not think about what they are saying. They use jargon like saying, “I need to balance my life” when they feel overwhelmed with too much work or guilty about not spending more time with their friends. If you ask, “What do you mean when you say you want balance?” or “What feels out of balance?” you will probably help them discover the situational definitions and specifics that are driving their discomfort.

Another way of looking more deeply into a conversation is to ask the meaning of throwaway comments. People often end sentences with quick, thoughtless comments like, “I’m not good at that” or “They’re like that with everyone.” These comments are often dismissive, meant to override a fear of taking a risk or standing up for oneself. When you ask for meaning, you can unearth the untested beliefs they are holding. The conversation becomes an experience instead of a simple volley of words.

The four words that could help people address what is truly challenging for them and what they really want to have for themselves are, What do you mean?”

The intention of the four words

When you accept what someone says without understanding what they mean, the gems that can strengthen your connection and transform your conversation stay hidden below the surface. When instead, you ask someone what they mean, you help them see the limiting perceptions that prompted their statement. You both understand what is seen and how they interpret it better.

You can also help them think about their words by offering two ways of looking at what they mean for them to choose from or try to state their meaning in a different way. When they hear you try to understand their words, they are likely to assess the words they spoke more deeply.

Ask questions like, “When you say you want more balance do you mean to balance your tasks or do you need emotional balance?” or “When you say you aren’t good at that, are you saying it’s not in your nature to succeed at that or you are afraid of what will happen if you make a mistake and don’t perform perfectly?” or “When you say those people are like that with everyone, do you mean you want to let go of taking their behavior personally or that you fear what will happen if you tell them how their behavior makes you feel?” If they choose one of your options or none of them, what was lurking in the shadows comes to light.

Bringing conversations into the light

Michael Bungay Stanier wrote a blog post called In the Shadows where he described what he saw in an art gallery when he turned away from the light.

“I started to notice the shape of the room. What was in the corners. How the columns were arranged to hold things up. The secret exits. Turning away from the spotlight and looking in the shadows started to show me the system, the infrastructure, and more of what was going on.

The whole picture is both shadow and light.”

Whether you are coaching, mentoring, or casually conversing, seeking to understand meaning before reacting to what they say is a gift for both you and who you are speaking with.

Diffusing conflict

I recently judged someone for calling me authoritarian without asking what he meant. I felt a sting of what I assumed was criticism. I assumed he thought I was a bully and should be more passive. I did offer him a different description, saying, “I prefer to be called efficient or proactive than authoritarian.” He said I couldn’t take a joke.

Maybe I was reactive, but if I had asked him what he meant by his comment, I might have better understood the context. A few days later he apologized saying, “I should have said you are a confident and direct woman. My English choice of words is not always precise (he is from South America).” I still wasn’t sure if he thought that was good or bad. I still think he thought I was being aggressive. Our relationship spiraled downward because neither of us asked to explore what was in the shadows of our conversation.

Because our brains are always in protective mode, we see threats before we see opportunities. We start conflicts with others without being curious. We assume bad intent and seek ways to make our assumptions right.

We see comments to resist or fight about before we ask, “What do you mean?”

There is apparent meaning in words. There is also meaning in what is meant behind the words. As Michael said, “The whole picture is both shadow and light.”

There is so much we can learn and help others to see by starting with the four words, “What do you mean….”


Michael Bungay Stanier. In the shadows, MBSworks. com, April 25, 2023. Found at  

8 thoughts on “Four Words That Can Transform Your Conversations”

  1. Christine Lwanga

    I have read and appreciate that is stated about the four words. I’m going to sue it more.
    It sounds like developing an inquisitive mid – rather than a reacting mind (open to what is out there).
    It also seems like – this state of mind is easier among those who are in a heathy state of mind – even though this is not a permanent state- for some it is more easily accessible than other.

    1. I agree Christine. And developing an inquisitive mind to override reactive habits takes a strong desire to practice mindful awareness and shifting from “knowing” to “learning.” It also requires we practice self care with our sleep, nutrition, social relationships, and sense of oneness with life to keep our brains as healthy as we can. Thank you for commenting.

  2. Another great article from you! When I used to teach Critical Thinking in business settings, two core standards are clarity and precision. Along with the standards were the elements including “concepts,” which refer to being clear and precise with the terms/language we use. I can’t understand you, if you use core terms with different meanings.

    From the beginning of my journey as a coach, I have always frequently asked my clients, “What do you mean by…” I have sensed that sometimes they get annoyed.

    When language enters the culture, and people have their individual and diverse experiences, nuances of meanings take hold onto key terms resulting with people understanding those same terms quite differently.

    Bravo for giving coaches the permission to ask “silly questions” around the meaning of a common term. One of my favorite terms to inquire with work teams is teamwork. What does it mean? What does it look like? Does it allow for tam members to vehemently disagree and “argue” with each other to put the best idea forward or to help the team not fall into groupthink?

    1. Great insights, Ed. Thank you. I agree that we need to always be curious about the “nuances of meanings.” Add the word “leadership” to teamwork – what does it mean? Love it.

  3. “What do you mean?”

    It’s really so powerful when it truly directs the meaning as- What is the underlying message or core understanding you would like me to grasp!!

    I admire how you emphasized the significance of reframing conversations by consciously selecting powerful words that inspire reflection and deeper engagement.
    Your post has inspired me to reassess my own communication style and be more intentional in my choice of words yet again!

    I have been employing synonymous phrases (in a rather simplistic and naïve way ) to foster more profound conversations, aiming to detach myself from any personal reactions or misconstrued meanings, while going individuals would delve deeper into their thoughts and beliefs. This practice initially emerged from a place of innocence during my college years, when I realized I was prone to taking things too personally or perceiving them as personal attacks.”

    Thank you again for sharing such valuable knowledge and contributing to the growth and development of professionals in our community. Your expertise and ability to convey complex concepts in a clear and concise manner are truly commendable, Marcia.
    I look forward to reading more of your insightful content in the future.

    1. Thank you for your insights, Payal. Sometimes the simple actions create the most profound results. We all have the ability to get better in our communications and connections.

  4. Great ” Four words” it really helps when you come across a query while presenting. By asking this, you reconfirm the question and simultaneously you get paus and short time time as well to find out appropriate answer for that question.

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