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Words matter. Context and communication matter more.

I've been thinking a lot this week about one of my favorite adages -- words matter. I've written about this before but this week I got stuck on it because I can't help but notice that words alone are not enough. We may begin knowing that our words matter but unless we use them to communicate beyond slogans or memes or 144 characters, they stand to lose their impact or, worse, be misconstrued or even abused.

Words like patriot, personal responsibility, freedom, accountability have always sounded like positive universal things to me but lately they've been politicized and usurped. When we define social concepts or contracts for ourselves or our group alone, we've abandoned communication in favor of an empty slogan. Empty because the meaning isn't universally shared.

Real, meaningful, useful communication is hard. It doesn't necessarily lead to agreement or consensus. But, it is necessary to establish common understanding and jointly agreed-upon meaning. When it works, hardened positions can soften and people can begin to see others as people too, possibly even people like them who really believe in the importance and meaning of their words.

I remember well one day many years ago when my older sister mused rhetorically, "When did being Christian become a bad thing?" Being raised Catholic I had always taken myself to be Christian by default. But my sister was ahead of me in her intellectual awakening and it was a time --the '80s -- when the adjective Christian was changing from a religious designation into a political label associated with people who held right-leaning political views on abortion and birth control and they were morphing into a bloc.

This week, I encourage you to listen -- not to others but to yourself. Listen to your beliefs as expressed in your words, the ones that feel fundamentally, deeply true to you in one way only. Examine your certainty and see if there is any wiggle room. Could there be another way to say it? How would opposite you express this word or phrase? Is there space to open up to a deeper, more nuanced meaning? Should you or others be using a different word? Is your use of the word(s) going to come with an explanation in the future, or change?

Words matter. They matter a lot! Be clear in your communication. But don't just rely on the words themselves. Nuance matters. Communication matters. Listening matters. That's what communication is.


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