The meaning of words

December 3rd, 2014

Play WordleMusing over the meaning of these words – play, playfulness, game, activity, ice-breaker and warm-up – I invited others to share their understanding. Even with a sample size of 14 responses*, there’s some interesting insights regarding word meanings and the use of language when facilitating. here’s what i discovered.

Some people gave meanings for each word, others took the words as a collective and said what they mean to them: eg “Fun, sharing and the unknown”; “getting together and learning from having fun”. So there’s my first insight:

Even instructions are interpreted differently

That’s not to say everyone should interpret instructions the same way (unless it’s the safe operation of a chainsaw). There’s something interesting and unexpected about what emerges from different interpretations of instructions. Plus, who am I to know the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way of doing an activity?

A word with no context can be taken many different ways

Play, for example can be a verb (activities done primarily for leisure or enjoyment), a noun (a theatrical performance), or an object (the button you push to start a DVD player). This really drove home the point for me that, as facilitators, we may use words that mean a certain thing to us, but may be interpreted quite differently by others. It’s a clue, I think, to talk less, and do more.

There was no agreement on what these words mean, because ‘meanings are slippery’

Thanks to the person who alerted me to this. I understand what I mean when I use a particular word, you may understand something completely different. I remember an animated argument I once had with a US journalist about ‘organic’ agriculture. After a while, I asked him what he meant by ‘organic’ and we discovered that what I understood to be ‘organic’ he understood as ‘biodynamic’: related yes, but somewhat different. We sometimes need to clarify and negotiate what we mean when we use various words. And sometimes we need to be open to accepting a different, or changed, meaning to the one we had in mind.

Our experiences and influencers shape our understanding

“I didn’t come all this way to play games!” said a manager in one of my workshops. In his mind ‘play’ and ‘game’ had a particular meaning, and place. And it certainly wasn’t in a facilitated workshop. A colleague is very clear that a ‘game’ is something that has rules, winners and losers. If it’s a collaborative, group game then, in his mind, it’s not a ‘game’, it’s an activity. A hunter would have a different understanding of ‘game’ eg a wild animal; and game can be used as an adjective ‘are you game to do that?’

Language is an abstraction and representative

The words I type here reflect my thoughts, they are not my thoughts. The word ‘chair’ is not a chair. At least a chair is a concrete object that I can point to, touch, feel, and sit in – even though there are many different types of chairs. Abstract language, which crops up a lot in workshops, is even harder to deal with: communication, strategy, best practice etc. and is fraught with danger.

Meaning can be sucked out of words

Don Watson, in his book, Weasel Words (2004), talks about ‘sucking the meaning out of words’. “This is a language without possibility. It cannot convey humour, fancy, feelings, nuance, or the varieties of experience…This dead, depleted, verbless jargon is becoming the language of daily life. The death of language is not being brought about by absent commas, and misplaced apostrophes, or even by neglected grammar. Foolish as that neglect is, the real disease is in the system…it is there in the cant of competitive advantage and human resources management, transparency, accountability: in the clichés, consumer, client, key, core, going forwards, at the end of the day, outcomes-based. It is there in the pompous lunacy of management jargon which reaches from the world’s biggest corporations and government agencies…to primary schools where children now use PowerPoint in English presentations and are taught to call the conclusions of their history essays product.”

We can have an emotional reaction to particular words

And usually it’s not a good reaction – these words close us down. You probably know what yours are. If someone tells me in a workshop that ‘communication is the problem’ I inwardly sigh and immediately wish I were somewhere else; if someone suggest a SWOT analysis I want to scream. These words trigger a response in me. They may be completely benign to others. In his recent AFN post, Peter Rennie, talks about ‘taboo’ words and muses as to what makes them taboo. Is it because they are ‘shadow’ words, words that remind us of something we’d rather forget or ignore? Interesting question.

What’s all this got to do with facilitating?

Language is a form of power. Don Watson (2003) again: “Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another.”

As facilitators we need to cultivate our ability to sniff out weasel words and to challenge them. In a workshop someone suggested ‘business as usual’ was needed. This is a meaningless term to me, so I probed a bit more. What they really wanted to say was ‘we need to honour our existing commitments’. Still not great, but at least better than ‘business as usual’.

And we also need to be aware of our own facilitation weasel words. There’s a great hash tag on Twitter #shitfacilitatorssay. I cringe every time, seeing myself using ‘facilitator’ language.

It pays to be vigilant – to notice the language others use, to notice the language we use, to be aware of the power of language, and to sometimes let go of language altogether and tap into more embodied experiences of sharing.

* To be perfectly clear, this is definitely not a scientific study – it was a random on-line question to facilitator groups with the invitation to share what these words mean to them.


Don Watson (2003) Death sentence; the decay of public language, Random House, Sydney.

Don Watson (2004) Watson’s dictionary of weasel words, contemporary clichés, cant and management jargon, Random House, Sydney.

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