09/05/2013 12:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2013

We Are Using the Same Words, But Are We Speaking the Same Language?

I learn a lot from the comments I receive on my blogs. I learn not only about what resonates and is helpful for people, but also about who we are and how we think, communication itself, which then teaches me more about what might be helpful going forward. There are some teachings that I re-learn week after week, which lead me to address them here as subjects unto themselves.

First, through the interactive process of blogging, it becomes entirely clear that while we may all be using the same words, we absolutely positively are not speaking the same language. We use words to represent our thoughts, feelings and ideas in this culture, but the meanings that we attach to these words are always different for each person using them. We have different educations, memories, associations, experiences, traumas, preferences etc., and all of these differences affect the meanings and interpretations we attach to our words. Even this last sentence means a thousand different things to the thousand different people reading it.

The problem is not so much that we are hearing different things in the same words, but the fact that we believe that we are meaning the same thing. This misunderstanding causes many of the problems that we run into in our relationships and indeed every form of human interaction. The assumption that what I am saying is that which you are understanding is false. Even the simplest words ("I," for example) hold radically different meanings for each person. As a blogger, it is a fascinating experience to send bundles of words out into the universe and watch how many different versions of those words are actually received and responded to (often vehemently) -- many of which (by no fault of their reader) carry no aroma of the meaning that was actually intended by this writer. This is of course is not unique to blogging, but rather the nature of language itself.

What then is to be done if we are all speaking different languages despite using the same words? Shall we stop trying to communicate altogether? This is not a viable solution, as we still want to reach each other and be known, still want to dialogue and exchange ideas. Because the system is limited does not mean we limit our use of it. Rather, what is important is that we recognize and honor the limitations of language in the face of our desire to know each other, and keep all of this in the front of our consciousness. We must continually remind ourselves that what we mean with our words is probably not what another is hearing. When we receive feedback, in whatever form, that we not immediately react to another based on the assumption that what we said is what the other heard or more importantly, understood. Sometimes the response we are receiving is indeed about what we meant, but so often it is not. We can interrupt a large majority of the conflict that arises in our relationships just by recognizing and staying mindful of the infinite variations in meaning that exist within the very same words.

As a therapist, sometimes it is easiest to work with clients from radically different cultures than my own. With someone whose culture is completely unknown for me, I have the luxury of making no assumptions. Because of our obvious differences, I easily accept that I have no way of knowing what they mean when they use a particular word or bundle of words to express a concept. I know simply that it is probably not what I mean when I use that word or concept. With clients who have lived an experience that feels familiar, come from a similar culture perhaps, I must remind myself continually that despite our similar history, and the use of similar words, I still cannot and should not assume that I know what they mean when they say what they say. It is incumbent upon me to investigate further, so that I am not relating to myself, but to my client, authentically. Some degree of assumption must occur as we cannot investigate every word spoken, but the more that we can stay mindful of the assumptions that we are making, the less communication misses and hurts we will be forced to endure.

Even with our most intimates, those we feel really know us, we cannot assume that we mean the same things when we use the same words. And while this can feel daunting and isolating, it can also be deeply liberating. With this knowing, the world opens up; communication transforms from the finite to the infinite. How liberating to realize that there is so much more to be discovered in another's words than what we know and assume -- that thank goodness we are not limited to and trapped in just our own understanding and experience. How freeing to discover that what we know is just that... what we know, and that there is so much more to life -- that our reality is just one of infinite realities! How incredible to be able to move outside our own box of mind, and return to a state of not knowing and total freedom, to be able to look and really see. So too, how profoundly unburdening to realize that we cannot and should not expect ourselves to know what another means when they speak our language, even though technically it is the same language. Why would we imagine that we could know what another means, about anything, without investigation? And even with investigation, can we ever really know? We have all lived different lives and that changes the meaning of all the words we speak. But, beautifully, we can always inquire, and what a rare and extraordinary gift it is to actually ask another human being what they mean when they say "X," to give them the opportunity to be known, and for us to truly know them. In each word spoken by another, there is a universe to be discovered, if we are curious, if we really want to know another -- not through our lens but through theirs. To remove our translation and listen freshly, how lovely! Like thoughts that go on in our own private mind theaters, the meanings for words and concepts are also part of our own private universe. When we are mindful and respectful of this truth, freed up from of our own private languages, what an adventure life can be!

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