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Word Maps

The meaning of words and why understanding word maps is an important communication skill and is an essential part of mastering the RESOLVE process.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” – Mark Twain

Anyone with even a basic understanding of the English Language will know it is a difficult language to learn: with influences from Latin, Greek, French, The Celts, Jamaican, German, etc.: it is not surprising to find many words which do not follow any specific rules in terms of grammar, pronunciation or usage.

Our language is rich in 3 specific areas,

  • Homonyms- words which have the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings.

  • Homophones – words which have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings.

  • Homographs – words that are spelt the same but have different pronunciations and meanings.

All of which provide a basis for the underpinning concept of a word map – the premise that a single word often means fundamentally different things to two different people, despite the fact that both are aware that the word in question may sit into one of the three categories above.

There is a second field of influence on the concept of a word being interpreted differently, which is far more significant than that associated with etymology; it is known as a ‘Frame of Reference’.

A frame of reference is a complex set of assumptions and attitudes which we use to filter perceptions to create meaning. The frame can include beliefs, schemas (a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information), preferences, values, culture and other ways in which we bias our understanding and judgment.

In its simplest terms, a frame of reference is a process by which we try to make sense of something, someone, an idea, a problem etc. It is how we try to understand things.

Ironically, the terms frame of reference itself has different meanings and has applications within mathematics, physics, and psychology among others.

This article looks at Frames of Reference within communication, and the tool of words maps in particular.

Framing is an important consideration in changing mind-sets since we perceive what we consider to be reality through subconscious frames. Because we see our perceptions as real, we believe others must also see them as real. Imagine you are wearing a set of glasses that filter everything that is not blue; we end up naturally believing that the world is blue, and consequently that others will see it likewise.

In other articles, we have already considered the process of reframing. The approach is based on an intervention that looks at things a different way. In effect you are challenging the current frame and offering a different ‘frame’ in which to consider a topic; which might lead to an alternative being considered, a new way of looking at things, and new meanings being considered and potentially new and different solutions.

By seeking to understand a person’s frames of reference, we have the opportunity to see how they might change their frames. If you can change their frames, you can change their world. E.g. “A training session is where trainers have the responsibility for training me”, might become: “The person who owns my learning is me, I have to take some responsibility for ensuring I learn what I need to know.”

The intent underpinning a word map is deceptively simply, but it opens up huge opportunities and allows you to find out about the other person’s frame of reference. In some respects, it has roots disseminating from George Kelly’s construct theory and his repertory grid. However, it can be used in contexts much wider than psychology and understanding personality types: it is also far less complex and more immediately accessible, but equally useful none the less.

A word map is simply the concept of a mind map applied to a single word. Ask someone to write down 4-6 words that they associate with your chosen word. Do the same exercise yourself and compare your answers. Then think about the implications of this.

The following is a real example of two word maps that clearly explains how differences occur. It occurred during a coaching session for a couple who were trying to rationalise some aspects of their lives so that they could spend more time with their children. The word ‘quality’ kept coming up and appeared to a source of tension: this example is the content of their two maps.

As an exercise, the outcome enabled much clearer communication to take place, which eventually lead to a shared understanding about what they were looking for in terms of a quality of life for their children.

If there is an apparent (unspoken) lack of consensus over one single word, is it hardly surprising that sentences, and paragraphs or statements and conversations, sometimes fail to achieve their intended outcomes.

Although this is a very straight forward tool that can be used in one to one conversations, team meetings, progress review meetings, etc., where the process of actually getting participants to quickly complete the exercise can reveal that we all make sense (construct meaning from our frames or reference) of our worlds differently, in reality, the simple polite invitation to

“Tell me more about that”

achieves the same outcome: it fits into the communication cycle where you engage the feedback loop to illicit more understanding over a word that you consciously recognise as ambiguous.

E.g. In a management meeting:

“I am getting reports that staff are not attending their quarterly review meetings, and this is causing a problem at many levels: HR are complaining that you as managers don’t know what your staff’s training needs are, we can’t evidence our committed to continuous learning and support for staff within an IIP context, and individual members of staff are confused about what is going on.”

The word confused is ambiguous and could be a word that leads to difficulty in achieving shared understanding. Left unchallenged different managers would leave the meeting with different understanding of how to address the situation.

Could you tell me more about what members of staff are confused about … (are the staff confused about the need to attend, are they confused about the process, are they confused about the timing, are they confused about the importance, are they confused about the arrangements? etc.)

An interesting story:


When I say ABRACADABRA what do you instantly think of?

A man called Mark was having dinner with friends in Ecuador several years ago when one of the guys at the table said, “Hey Mark, do you know what abracadabra means?” He replied, “magic”. His friend said, “No, no it doesn’t”, and then told the real story: “Abracadabra is Aramaic. Aramaic is the language the original Old Testament was written in and is one of the two languages Jesus spoke. Abracadabra means ‘with my word I create’ or ‘with my word I influence.’ They had so much respect for this sacred teaching that they would triangulate Abracadabra and wear it around their necks to remind them of the power of the spoken word.” Mark was speechless.

Etymology. The word may have its origin in the Aramaic language, but numerous conflicting folk etymologies are associated with it. The word Abracadabra may derive from an Aramaic phrase meaning “I create as I speak.” … In the Hebrew language, the phrase translates more accurately as “it came to pass as it was spoken.

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