I am no diplomat. I have no formal training in conflict resolution, nor do I possess any great skill at it. In fact, I prefer to avoid controversy altogether. I find it messy and annoying and unproductive. It also tends to bring out the worst in me. Nevertheless, few of us can realistically avoid conflict and how we address it when we encounter it is key to the outcome.
I find myself in the role of facilitator among several stakeholder groups between which enormous tensions have developed over the past decade. There is nothing quite like having to learn on the job, and nothing has prepared me for this challenge. The good news is that there is leadership in each of these stakeholder groups that acknowledges the tensions and is willing to sit at a table and discuss them. It is a good process, not only because the barriers that inhibit trust are beginning to erode, but also because clear and transparent dialog has begun to illuminate and expose those touch points of friction between the players. Is it any surprise that many of these touch points are semantic?
Such was the case at a recent meeting. But let me first clarify the circumstances and put them in perspective so that they will neither be misunderstood nor over interpreted. This, in fact, is one of our key challenges, as I will shortly demonstrate. I am working on behalf of a small alternative school that is part of a local public school district. The key stakeholder groups are the parents, the faculty, the administration, and the School Board. The situation is complex not just because of the personal tensions that have arisen over the years, but also because of increasingly rigid legislation affecting this type of school. But there are no bad guys involved. Almost everyone is reasonable and rational. Certainly everyone wants to participate in and ensure the delivery of high quality education for our children.
Now, back to our meeting. The participants included the district Superintendent, the school Principal, myself, and another member of the Parent-Teacher Organization Board. After some initial discussion on the meeting topic, we digressed into an unusually frank conversation about the misunderstandings we are all encountering. At one point, the Superintendent turned to me and said, “Steve, you keep referring to Gail [not her real name] as a teacher. In my world, the word teacher refers to a professional educator with a Washington State teaching certification. But with those words just out of my mouth, I also recognize that Socrates was one of the greatest teachers on the planet and never held a certification from anywhere. Do you see my dilemma?”
I saw it instantly. It was another major “Aha!” moment for me. Here was a simple word with a public meaning that all English-speaking people understand. Teacher: a person who teaches, instructs, or educates. But now there was also a specialized or guild meaning if you will. Teacher: a person who has been certified by a public authority according to official criteria as being qualified to instruct or educate. The guild member, of course, sees the term in the latter context, that is, as a title or designation that affords them the distinction from those that are not certificated. Teacher becomes an entitled title, almost like Doctor or Professor. And irrespective of the profound absurdity of it in the end – after all, when was the last time you met a piano teacher who was certificated? – this is one clear source of emotional misunderstanding. Gail might be Socrates incarnate, but to the guild member she is not a teacher and that guild member might be angry because others bestow Gail with that title unfairly. Conversely, the layperson is using the public meaning of the word teacher and misunderstands the guild member’s emotion and might interpret it as animosity toward Gail.
This is not an isolated example, nor is it confined to the world of education. I ran across the same thing in the Business Intelligence world a couple of years back. While working on a project for a client, a colleague on the team continually referred to the “data store” at the back end of his analytic environment as a data warehouse. Now, most of us in the business, when referring to the term data warehouse, are referring to extremely large data stores, usually at an enterprise level, based on either the Inmon or Kimball approach, and containing multiple subject areas. And although there are probably as many definitions for data warehouse as there are BI practitioners, for the sake of argument let us have this stand as the public understanding. Nevertheless, my colleague used the term data warehouse for something I understood to be a data mart and at first it confused me. It was only after a difficult (and not unemotional) conversation that I realized he was using the term in a more specialized way, one that was peculiar to specialists of that analytic environment. This was a guild meaning for data warehouse. Unfortunately, his use of the term brought the client’s data architecture group into a near frothing rage over who had authorized a couple of consultants to implement another enterprise data warehouse. Egos were calmed once the semantic disconnect had been cleared up.
Being able to recognize the semantic disconnect allows us the opportunity to design mitigation strategies. But it is not really that simple. While we would all like to think of ourselves as reasonable rational people, the reality is that we each have our personal cul-de-sacs of unreasonable irrationality. The challenge is getting us to come to the table and willingly shine light inside them. Not everyone is that open. And we cannot just insist that we all use one of those meanings. So what is the answer?
As I mentioned above, I am learning this role on the job. Consequently, I cannot present here a collection of bullet points representing some leading practice or another. And as I have discussed in these pages, a great deal of what I do comes from my experience. I also gather enlightenment from friends, colleagues, and other professional resources. So what I am proposing here is a course of action as yet untried. Perhaps I’ll blog the results in a couple of months. Here are the proposed strategies:
- Continue to be on the lookout for semantic disconnect between guild and public meanings of words in common use by the stakeholder groups.
- Become sensitive to these semantic disconnects and considerate of the respective points of view without becoming hostage to either.
- Examine the clarity and transparency of all communication be it written or oral, and strive to make it as open and respectful as possible. Be consistent and honest in all communication.
- Actively seek advocates within each stakeholder group with whom the semantic disconnects (as well as the associated misunderstandings) can be exposed and discussed. Brainstorm with this advocate on mitigation strategies.
- Design and facilitate forums in which the stakeholder groups can come together and participate in exercises that execute these mitigation strategies.
Perhaps it should not have been as much of a surprise as it was. It is common sense that we often have different meanings for the same word. I just never expected this level of disconnect on a common word that most of us have used all our lives. The most interesting – and for that matter, astonishing – aspect of this phenomenon is that it appears to drive an almost irrational interpretation of a person’s motives. Disconnect over this one word seems to engender subconsciously an adversarial condition across the stakeholder groups. Because the guild member does not recognize the non-guild practitioner as one of them, the public finds what the guild member says easy to interpret as a personal attack. Conversely, the guild member can easily interpret otherwise commonplace actions or words as a threat. If these are all reasonable, rational adults, then clearly much of this is happening at the unconscious level.
At the end of the day, the solution lies in people coming together and engaging in reasoned discourse about their differences. If this involves just a few people, then an informal forum with little formal structure is possible. For large numbers with multiple stakeholder groups, a more formal process needs to be facilitated that helps to set aside the emotional baggage that can impede understanding. Reason and process are key success factors, along with clear and transparent communication. We must allow ourselves the opportunity to ask questions – many, many questions – of others and ourselves, and to be honest about the answers. It is in this dialectic approach that the path to truth and alignment is to be found. And now if you don’t mind, I think I will pass regarding that drink offer and just get to work.
Do you have any other examples of common terms that have both a public and a guild meaning? Can you offer me any additional strategies for mitigating semantic disconnect?