What’s in a Word?

Recently, after speaking at a high school, I met with students and faculty to talk about conflict resolution. One young man suggested a debate, and the administrator IMMEDIATELY responded. “No! No debates; we can arrange a DISCUSSION.” He made me think about the impact of our word selection…in presentations, and conversations.

As a professional communicator and executive speaking coach, I encourage my clients to choose words carefully, and to consider how their audience may interpret them. As in the young man’s case, sometimes our word choice may unintentionally appear combative and confrontational.

The administrator pointed out that the word ‘debate’ could easily be interpreted as confrontational, while the word ‘discussion’ is less threatening. As I gave this deeper thought I noted that in a DEBATE, there are OPPONENTS, each taking a position that is either FOR or AGAINST. (Even the word ‘against’ implies conflict) There is a WINNER and a LOSER and debaters present ‘ARGUMENTS’ (another confrontational word). ‘DISCUSSION’ suggests an open-minded free exchange of ideas on a topic. By the way, ‘TOPIC’ is less confrontational than ‘ISSUE’. We often ‘TAKE ISSUE’ with someone else’s point of view, which itself implies confrontation.

At times, we ‘make an ARGUMENT’ when we could ‘state a POSITION.’ That works for attorneys, who make closing ARGUMENTS in hopes of WINNING their cases and defeating their OPPONENTS. In general conversation, the difference is subtle, but the impact on the minds of our listeners can be significant. Not everyone will analyze every word we say, but that school administrator immediately realized the potential for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Am I advocating removing DEBATE, ARGUMENT, ISSUE, or other potentially confrontational words from your vocabulary? By no means! They are valid and necessary; however, it’s important to consider the impact of the things we say within their intended context.

As one ancient book of wisdom puts it, “A kind answer soothes angry feelings, but harsh words stir them up.”

What’s in a word? So much more than we may know.

© 2017, Mark Brown. All rights reserved.

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One Comment

  1. Lovely article, Mark!
    I am so saddened by the level of crassness and lack of civility on our mass media, both in the US and here. Debate and discussion should be a lively give-and-take, with no hard feelings. The emotional outbursts ‘ against’ the other side leave emotional scars for a lifetime. Choosing our words carefully; being concise, clear and courteous go a long way to building relationships.

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