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Pot-TAY-toe/ Pot-TAH-toe

I am working on a fabulously complex project at the moment in which the clashing lexicons of a number of different Stakeholder groups are creating a festival of misunderstandings. It could be rather funny if it wasn’t so potentially serious in terms of the effects it has on our timeline every time we realise that what A thought B meant differs from what B actually meant.


This happens all the time in “real life” – not just on projects and it gives rise to tremendous frustration and eventually relational breakdown if it isn’t addressed. What to do?!


Well, firstly – be alert to early signs that there is a problem: Listen extremely carefully for subtle dissonances in discussion – Things like people glossing over acronyms or in-house terms without sense-checking that they are understood and interpreted the same way by the other party, or a Stakeholder frowning when a responder doesn’t seem to be answering quite the right question. It’s always worth taking the time to question the assumption that the parties are on the same page.


For some reason people can be quite territorial or protective of their own lexicon, and can react defensively when it is questioned, so I tend to frame my enquiry as a personal request for clarification….. “Sorry to interrupt – I just want to check that when you say XYZ what you mean is….?” That way I am owning my inability to understand, rather than accusing the speaker of poor commnunication!


Secondly, determine whether the terminology confusion will be shortlived – e.g. just for the duration of the project  – or whether it will be ongoing. If the latter, then continued misalignment will affect the sustainability of the solution once it is in operation, particularly if differences between the parties extend into a number of domains or subjects.


For example, if Support will be provided on an ongoing basis by one party to the other then they DEFINITELY need to have a common language. In such instances the early development of a common glossary of terms is essential….

Bashing this out together can itself be a great communication exercise!