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.
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 https://mbsworks.activehosted.com/index.php?action=social&chash=69cb3ea317a32c4e6143e665fdb20b14.484&s=bcf0666980ccda2e6cc70896fffb3d2f