Effective Communication Starts With Defining Terms

Effective Communication Starts With Defining Terms

Effective Communication

Communicate Effectively

The challenges of communicating are well documented. The important elements of effective communication is well documented. What can I add to the vast trove of communication literature clogging the innertubes?

A place to start.

My typical communication in business settings falls into two camps. One involving a transfer of knowledge and the other involving persuading an individual or group to consider my points and take action on an idea. For years, you could figure out which was which simply by listening to my tone of voice. Calm measured tones highlighted a transfer of knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm was a hallmark of persuasion. Once I settled on the process and started communicating “on purpose”  it was harder to tell what was happening because it’s now just a highly caffeinated state of measured enthusiasm!

This note will center on the first step of my “process”. It’s in the first position because when communication is a struggle, the issues usually lie in this first step.

Define Terms

Socrates is credited with saying, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”, and effective communication still depends on this fact. If we need to work together, let’s start by getting on the same page.

If you’re thinking that this could lead to an extreme lengthening of the communication process, I get it. It can be tedious and if not handled correctly, it comes off as slightly condescending. Asking, “What’s your definition of X?” can be alternately probing and irritating. Trust me. It works.  Just like the anecdote of Einstein being asked what he would do if presented with “only an hour to save the world” in which he answers “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem”, taking the time to define key terms up front speeds up the communication process.

That said, even if you’re totally on board with the concept of defining terms, you’ll need some savvy in helping the other party get on the same page. It takes two to tango, eh? Here are 3 tips for entering into a discussion about the “definition of terms” during various phases of a meeting.

  • Frame the process up front. When you site with an individual or a committee and want that time to be incredibly effective, you use an Agenda or an Outline, right? A device to keep everyone on track. “Framing” that process is simply saying this before you jump into the actual outline: “Before we get started . . .” It’s a magic phrase that brings the guard down and allows for free flowing conversation. Introducing the concept of defining key terms to speed the process up is received well when introduced at this time. 
  • Backtrack when the conversation is stalling. Even though I put the definition of terms in first position, most conversations go everywhere else but in the order I drew up. That’s only a problem if you’re unable to get your heads out of the hole you’re digging. Once you recognize that “this isn’t going anywhere”, throw out the concept of defining terms and take the blame for needing to do so. “I’m sorry. I can be a little slow on the uptake sometimes. Can we go back to the beginning and make sure we’re on the same page on a few key terms?” It works wonders and tends to diffuse tension for a moment.
  • Reiterate on wrap up. You wouldn’t think that once the knowledge has been transferred or the persuasion is in motion that you would need to define terms, but it’s incredibly effective to have your communicating partner “reinforce” their changed position before wrapping up. Language that flows like, “Just to reinforce that we’re on the same page here, let’s touch on a couple key points.”

These 3 tips will help you get into a discussion about key terms. That only leaves one thing: you need to understand the key terms germane to the conversation.

I know, I know. . .that’s not a small point. I’ll get into a discussion on how to identify “key terms and concepts” in a future post.

Simple but not easy.

Good stuff.

About the Author: Greg Chambers is Chambers Pivot Industries. Get more business development ideas from Greg on Twitter.