As human beings we are ‘meaning-making machines’. The instant we see or hear something, we make it mean something. This makes us naturally good at identifying patterns and solving problems, but it also causes us to attribute meaning incorrectly or where there was none. Indeed - there is no meaning, except that which we attribute to something.
If it’s raining, most people will say “it’s a miserable day”. Is rain miserable? Is a day miserable? Of course not, it’s just the meaning which we may or may not choose to attribute. “So what?” I hear you asking?
The words you use in an email, in opening a conversation, and elsewhere will trigger emotions in the listener. Imagine receiving an email from your biggest customer entitled “Urgent problem!”. Immediately your pulse rate quickens and adrenaline starts pumping as you click to open the email with a sense of dread. You open it and discover their urgent problem is that they need to double their order and you just smashed your sales target as a result. Maybe on seeing that title you avoided opening it - fearing the worst - and left it until last?
So how often do you choose your words carefully in order to gain the reaction you do want, and to avoid inadvertently generating a reaction you wouldn’t want? If you work in marketing and write headlines, you’re probably a master at this. But for the rest of us, it can pay to raise our consciousness of the effect our words are likely to have.
Context also influences the meaning we create. For example, if in the UK you pick up your post and see a brown envelope bearing the logo for HMRC it might fill you with dread - a tax demand or tax return or other bad news could be inside. Of course it could be a refund, but few of us quickly opens the envelope to find out how much!
These days, as much as it pains me to admit this, a politician only has to open their mouths and we’re wondering what their angle is and what they’re trying to cover up. Who’d want to be a politician if that’s how everyone thinks? This expectation about people is another example of meaning we create rather than reality.
Do you have someone in your life who, as they approach and before they even open their mouths, you have an expectation of what they’re going to say? Are they going to bring you a new problem? Are they always full of criticism or praise? These expectations we put on those around us - or even complete strangers - influence our thinking and our actions.
I used to work in a computer software company and was working on an exhibition stand. One of my team came over and whispered that someone had been by and would be coming back to see me, but they’d do me a favour and say I was busy. “Why?” I asked. “Just some scruffy bloke, I couldn’t even tell what he was talking about.”. Sure enough he returned but I agreed to speak to him. He had very scruffy hair, scruffy beard, scruffy clothes. But what he showed me was a groundbreaking product he’d been developing. I set up a meeting for the week after. He turned up in a pin-stripe suit and looking very smart. He explained that he was a qualified psychologist and as he touted his idea around the exhibition he wanted to ensure that his future business partner was the kind of company he’d like to deal with, not superficial. It became a very successful product for us - good job judged the product and the person!
In all walks of business and life generally, be consciously aware of the words you use and the perception you create. Because deliberate or not, you influence the person you’re dealing with. Then turn it around and see through the meaning you’re attributing to the people and events around you. See things for what they are, or what they can be.
By: Rob Pickering
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