The Meaning We Give to the Words We Hear

The Meaning We Give to the Words We Hear

‘Don’t run’. This was my Dad telling his 7-year-old son not to, as we unloaded the weekly food shop from the car to the house. I was keen to help, as any little boy helping his Dad. I stood at the boot of the car keen to take the next thing into the house. Dad handed me a 1-litre glass jar of orange juice (I think I may have single- handily been responsible for the move to cartons!). Roll forward 20 seconds and there I am, sprawled out on the concrete path crying, blood everywhere. I’d ran. My Dad spent the majority of the 6 hours we waited at A&E telling me that he had specifically told me not to run. So, why did I? The answer is in the meaning we give to the words we hear.

Power Words

I was a 7-year-old boy. Running was always on my mind. At school, we’d have running races. We’d run throughout our break times. The P.E. lesson, we ran. I’d run home. It was all that was on my mind – I’d discovered legs, running, and trying to beat the other boys at running races.  So, my reticular filter was open to ‘run’. You know the reticular filter – when someone mentions a car make or you are looking to buy a particular car – you see loads of them. I hadn’t heard ‘Don’t run’ because I’d heard what I wanted to hear ‘run’. The power word my Dad had used was ‘run’. At least it was a power word to me. He was oblivious.

At work, we use power words too. If you were to use the sentence, ‘Making a loss – Our company is a long way from that’. People heard ‘loss’. The reason they did was that it was communicated slightly differently. On a subconscious level from you to them. Why? Because they had been thinking about the company making a loss.

Imagine, and especially with the current pandemic, a boss saying to her team, ‘I don’t want anyone to think about redundancies’. Which word did you hear most?

Summary: Be aware of the power words that you use.

It’s Not That

In business, we want to be liked, for people to tell us that we are good at what we do – to praise us. Our reticular filter is opened to hearing this stuff, and unfortunately, it is also opened to hear the opposite too.

Many years ago (I was 17) a boss called me into his office and said, ‘It’s not that we don’t think you’re good enough’. I heard, ‘We think you’re crap!’. People use that type of sentence – ‘It’s not that…’ because they think that it softens the blow. It doesn’t. It just adds confusion. Better to be direct, rather than cause ambiguity.

I have also heard people tell others, ‘It’s not that you’re not confident enough’. That destroys their confidence. Better to say, ‘I’d like to help you to be the best version of you by improving your confidence – how can I help you?’.

Summary: Be aware of using word wrappers that simply don’t work.

My Precious

The famous words of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, as he holds his treasured ring. Ever heard someone say, ‘I’m not precious about that’? They are. When any of us use the word precious and normally it is accompanied with ‘I’m not’, we are. This is a clear indication that this is very important to them. The next step is not to explain to them what just happened, i.e. ‘You said the word precious and that means…’. Instead, ask them – ‘How much does this matter to you?’. They’ll give you an answer that helps explain why it is precious and then you can manage it accordingly.

Summary: ‘Precious’ does mean important.

Listing the Choices

My wife and I were discussing what to do at the weekend. She said, ‘Shall we go to the cinema, go shopping or see my mum & dad?’. When someone offers you choices, they are not. The idea behind offering choice is the illusion of choice. Of gaining buy-in.  In the past, you may have answered let’s do number one or number two and I bet the person will have ummed & erred and then reiterated option 3. Whenever you are given the choice, the last option is the one they want to do.

Summary: The last option is the ‘right’ option.

The Small Words

It’s the small words that give us away when we are negotiating. Most people say that they don’t negotiate. They do. They just don’t realise it. For now, we’ll take a price example, but you might be negotiating to take control of a project, get someone to take a meeting, or asking someone to get something done.

‘I’ll buy that lawnmower for around £45’. What was the small word that gave away their position? ‘Around’. This sneaky little word tells us that they will accept a lower price than £45. What we don’t do is point this out. What we do, is say, ‘What price could you accept, please?’.

When negotiating the small words give away our position. Our innermost thoughts and at a time when we really want to play our cards close to our chest, they let us down. Other similar words are; ‘In the region of’ and ‘Around’. Listen for these words because they will help you to know what the other person is thinking.

SummaryListen for the little words that give us away.

These 5 examples show the meaning we give to the words we say can be very different from those intended.


For further tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Communication Skills and our Communication Skills YouTube Channel. Also, check out our award-winning blog to see more Communication Skills tips and articles.

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