What’s in a word? It depends

goalI spent some time, last week, entangled in a discussion about the meaning of words. I had used the words “intention,” “goal” and “objective” interchangeably to mean whatever a person being coached might want to be, do, have or happen. That was causing someone confusion.

His confusion made me sad. And maybe a little guilty. How could I, someone who pitches clear, conscious communication, be so casual about the meaning of something as fundamental in coaching as a goal. Or is it an objective? An intention?

But had I really transgressed? In coaching, we’re helping people identify what they really want. What matters is not what we call that, but what they call it. Our job is to find out how important it is to them. What they’re willing to give – or give up – to make it happen. We can only do that through asking questions that reveal how they think and feel about it.

If we rely on our meaning of words, or the dictionary definition, or the generally accepted meaning in our profession or culture, we aren’t serving our clients. We need to know what it means to them – and why it matters.

renoStill with words and meanings – in another conversation, we were bemoaning the use of the word “transformation” in the context of organizational change. On the continuum of degrees of change, from “tweak” on up, “transformation” seems pretty close to the max.

And what does transformation imply? Everything about everything changes. Transformation is what happens to a caterpillar when it turns into a butterfly. It happens to you. Transformation is what happens when a wicked witch turns a handsome prince into a frog. And magic is sometimes involved. Abra-cadabra. Throw a little agile pixie dust around and transform your organization.

Organizational transformation is more like a home renovation. Everything’s disrupted for a while. It’s a mess. Bits of the structure are unusable. But we put up with it, because we know we’re going to get a better place to live.

When we talk to people at work about “organizational transformation” or “agile transformation,” most people – including us – don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s too big, too vague, too unseen, too magical. Let’s talk about renovation. Everyone’s seen at least one – and lived through it. It’s something real, familiar, manageable, and within our grasp.

Words create our world – or at least our understanding of it. Sometimes precision matters. Sometimes it doesn’t. What always matters is finding a word that has meaning for the person we’re talking with.