Licensed for Conversation: Why Words Matter

behind wheel of car
( Photo by Kirsi Färm on Unsplash )

I participate in hundreds of conversations each week in venues that range from producer conference calls, to university strategic planning conversations with Deans, to advising students, to shared testimonies with Sunday service worshippers. Each conversation assumes its own character, with topics, terms, vernacular, and vulnerabilities that surface subtexts linked to grander stories and deeper dramas that are the territory for cultural observers like me.  

While each word uttered one time, or by itself, doesn’t offer much in the way of meaning, strings of words, topics or phrases repeated consistently in the same types of conversations—even pauses and gestures that punctuate those words—can help us identify signposts that point us to biases, beliefs, myths and meaning.

Sometimes as I listen, I think we use words like a teenager with a newly acquired license. Here we are, powered to the max in our ramped-up Mustangs, unaware we wield both a wheel and a weapon depending on the weather, our state of mind and our capacity for distraction, diversion or focus.  

All these factors impact us, but we don’t think about them because, once we get behind the wheel, we are on autopilot—already impatient to arrive at our destination. We rarely think about the chassis, the number of times the wheels rotate, the loose gravel or the black ice. While accidents are inevitable, most accidents happen when we are driven to distraction—sorting out the traffic in our busy minds instead of merging into the human flow in front of us.

Driving the conversation
Conversations are the same way. We commit to a destination in our heads and drive that home, often without understanding how we’re working and how we’re merging with others who are similarly driving, often at a breakneck pace, toward destinations both well-defined and hazy. These conversations are characterized by function and undermined by dysfunction. 

Take conversations in agriculture. I have yet to get through an extended conversation without hearing an extraordinary number of sentences launched with “but,” “the problem is,” or “at the end of the day.”  Lately, these conversations indulge us in our worst fears—African Swine Fever, tariffs, Trump or the Chinese. They are punctuated with threads (or threats) of how long, how much, how little, how wrong and who’s right. 

Exposing the assumptions, myths, beliefs and biases behind how we think is critical to stewarding conversation—both for ourselves and others. We have to look under the hood. 

If we start every conversation with “but,” are we listening or arguing?  

If we’re driving conversations into dead ends by overriding, what’s been expressed with the phrase, “but, at the end of the day”? Have we dismissed possibilities introduced by others? Have we just put a stake in the ground that let’s others know we have not moved from our original destination? 

Increase your awareness 
I’m not picking on words or phrases, people, or ideas. I’m suggesting awareness about the phrases we’re using exposes our position on the map. It signals to others whether they are invited to merge or whether they have to get stuck behind you because you’re taking up both lanes on the road. 

Consider this: What do your words signal?  Resistance and resignation, or invitation and engagement?  

The bigger consideration: Are you traveling alone or are others riding with you, trusting you to drive? Or better yet, are they gaining confidence because you have licensed them to drive on behalf of your operation?  

Use your license carefully
By virtue of being human, we carry a license for conversation. I am wondering if, not through intent, but through lack of intent, we understand where we’re going and how we’re getting there when we have conversations that take off toward urgency at 200 miles per hour. Anyone attempting to merge with us has to keep pace at a similar urgency (if they can). Perhaps we need to be more deliberate in our awareness—pull over, look at a map together, and determine where we are choosing to go and which route is best to get there.  

When it comes to the mechanics of language, we will do well to understand how our car works and what kind of fuel we’re putting in the vehicle. We need to anticipate those opossums and raccoons, deer, and other critters hidden in the ditches, ready to lurch into traffic. 

Yes, accidents happen, but we have the opportunity to exercise self-awareness and control when it comes to navigating human conversations.