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when words fail

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Words: Frequently Chosen Tools of the Living

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Our Words are Fatally Flawed—By Design (Dummy’s Guide to Conversation #13)

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4 ways our words succeed even as they fail again and again

tumblr_mfrlc935Au1qbcporo1_1280-01022013Words seem like the perfect carrier for an idea. Say something and you’ve just told your thought. And now someone else understands that thought of yours.

Not so fast: assuming others understand is a bit of a leap.

The best you can say is that someone heard the words you said aloud. Whether they understood those words, whether they gave those words the weight you think they deserve, whether they have any clue about what you really mean—all these are in limbo. It’s very difficult to say if understanding happens in someone else. And I’ve taught enough college classes to know that a direct gaze back has little if any indication about what is going on deep in the whirring cogs of understanding.

Yet the very failure of words to communicate your thought exactly is actually the genius of our species. Because when we see our communication has not worked precisely—or perhaps it has failed to work at all—then we take action. We grab other symbols, we grab a pencil to make a sketch, we grab someone else’s words, we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or point to the stars or maybe we grab somebody by the lapels. One way or another we keep working at making ourselves understood. And as we do that work four things happen:

  1. We grow in relationship. Time spent communicating is time spent paying attention to each other. And time spent growing relationships, relating to each other—maybe even honoring each other by listening—is prime meaning-making time. Gathered together, these moments become the most memorable in our lives.
  2. We grow. We grow in communication. We grow in use of different tools, some of which we may find we have particular skill. We grow in understanding of our thought and of what this other person needs. Perhaps we grow in caring.
  3. Something new emerges. It turns out our original thought was not all that complete. The very act of communicating that thought changed it. For the better.
  4. We realize we need each other to move forward. Whether in our project teams at work, or in discussions about some ancient text, or in philosophy class, or discussing a web page design, or our daily exercise regimen—name any endeavor, and it benefits from being talked about. Even a silent retreat feels complete after we form words to tell our spouse or friend what we learned.

I hope 2013 is a year of growth for you in using words, especially as you work around their fatal flaw to communicate your passion.


Written by kirkistan

January 2, 2013 at 8:30 am

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