We don’t exclusively communicate with words. Our body language and actions send messages, too. However, words are a critical vehicle for creating shared understanding…and therein lies a big problem.

We assume the words we use have a common meaning to others. We articulate a request, an opinion or point-of-view, idea or whatever else with words. Depending on the background and previous meaning for the other person, we could be taking a very big risk. And even worse, people (especially smart and experienced people) will generally not ask what we mean by “think more strategically” or “create a vision.” They know what those words mean—to them.

Shared meaning emerges from dialogue. Where there are potential differences, the best way to ensure we are heard or understand accurately is to engage in a back-and-forth dialogue that “unpacks” the meaning of key words.

This week, test my assertion by listening to the words people use with you. Even if you think you know what they mean, ask for clarity. You can say “I think I know what you mean by “collaboration,” but tell me what you want to see in my actions or within the team?” And, take it from there using your curiosity to drive clarity.