Communication is the key to solving problems and successfully collaborating, but many of us still have difficulty communicating with particular team members. Why?

Because the words we use mean different things to different people in different contexts.
Matt Badgley, an agile product consultant at VersionOne, recently gave a presentation at Agile Day Atlanta about communication techniques you can use to solve problems and improve team meetings.

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VersionOne: Why is it important to focus on the words we use?

Matt: We all know that collaboration is the key to success. Ultimately, solving a problem is generally done by people talking to each other and working things out. Solving problems often happens inadvertently, through conversations.

So that’s why communication is key, and communication is made up, of course, of verbal and nonverbal cues. The same goes for the role of ScrumMaster. So, if you are in the role of product owner or ScrumMaster and you’re not good at facilitating communication, you are not going to be successful. So that’s why it’s really important.

When you actually talk about what words mean, you will find that certain words in certain organizations trigger emotions. They are bad words. They are basically four-letter words that are emotional for people. So you have to be aware of that. You will also find that there are some terms that mean one thing in one context and something totally different in another context. For example, epic is a word we use all the time in agile. And even the word project means different things, and it actually evokes different feelings in people.

VersionOne: In your presentation you shared some fun facts about communication – can you share those with us?

Matt: One of the most interesting statistics is that women speak roughly twenty thousand words per day on average, while men speak on average seven thousand words per day, and we all have around twenty-five thousand words in our active vocabulary.

Generally, we say between one hundred to one hundred and seventy-five words per minute, although we can listen to up to eight hundred. That is why we can often eavesdrop on other people’s conversations and gain insight. Our conscious minds can only process about forty bits of information per second, which includes colors and things like that. However, our subconscious mind, which deals with our motor skills, processes around eleven million.

One last little fun fact: the word that has been shown through studies of the brain to be the most dangerous in the world is the word no – probably because we learn that word at a very early age and get our hands slapped. So if you say no in a conversation, that instantly turns the context of the conversation around, or changes the tone. This just goes to show that the actual words we use are often undervalued and can mean so much more.

VersionOne: What are some of the ways you suggest for people to solve that problem?

Matt: In my presentation I make five suggestions.

1) Don’t redefine the obvious.

For example, when talking about requirements, we often use the word feature or capability. Now the scaled agile framework refers to requirements as a business epic or a feature epic. You’ll hear different terms that people throw out, just simply to change the term. So, be very deliberate on whether or not you need to change a word or not.

2) Be deliberate and intentional.

If you make the decision to change a term, be deliberate and intentional about using it. For example, the Spotify model uses the word squad rather than team. Squad makes you think of the military or a small group that is a subset of a sports team. A team is a bigger composition, but a squad is a smaller and more intentional group of people. By redirecting and changing people to use that term, it has some underlying meaning that’s beyond the word team.

3) Be aware of biases around a word.

Bias is a preconceived feeling around certain words. A funny one to use is the word ScrumMaster. The term master has some bias behind it, some predefined bias that people bring into the room with them. It’s not always perceived how it is meant to be, although ScrumMaster does actually mean the master of the scrum process, the sensei. At the end of the day, that bias can be dangerous. So be aware of the bias.

4) Use domain language.

Use the words that the business uses already. This suggestion goes with number one: don’t redefine the obvious, but also don’t go out of your way to use a word that’s not unique to your industry. Accept and embrace some of the acronyms that are associated with the industry. For example, in the agile industry, we use the term product owner and sprints, so embrace those kind of words.

5) Use visual elements when defining a glossary.

It may sound strange to create a visual glossary, but the idea comes from how we learned words as kids. You learned the word apple because you saw a picture of an apple. Defining ways in which people can not only read the word, but also visualize the word helps things stick.

Check out these posts to learn more about how you can improve your communication by focusing on what words mean.

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