Conflict, complexity and the use of language

In recent team meetings I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations that seem to quickly escalate into arguments based on a misunderstanding of the words we’re using. Words like intervention, disrespect and even something as simple as experiment are causing confusion within the group.

This got me thinking about how are use of language is shaped by the environment we’re in. Specifically which of the Cynefin domains your team is currently operating in.

In the Simple domain, use of language is not a problem. Everyone has a shared and deep understanding of the words used, their is no ambiguity. Plain speaking is all that is needed to get your point across.

Things require more care when you consider the other ordered domain. When you’re operating in the Complicated space you need experts. Experts tend to have their own very specific definitions for the words they use. So my proposal is that when working on an ordered, complicated problem then best to agree your use of language up front. Put together a glossary of terms, and if you involve more than one expert (as recommended) then ensure they are all talking the same language.

Now the more interesting space for me is when we operate in a Complex domain. Here I believe use of language needs ambiguity. The same idea needs expressing in multiple ways. The same words have multiple meaning. A group operating well in this environment, will be exploring the essence of what they are trying to communicate with a variety of means. As Dave Snowden often talks about in his blogs, parable, narrative, anecdotes and story are all tools at your disposal.

Finally when it comes to the Chaotic space, then I suspect we are back to plain speaking, keeping the concepts and communication methods straight forward and focused on what is being observed. Less is more, and listening becomes a great default position. I’m thinking about a fire-fighting or combat crew for ideas on how to handle this domain.

I’d love to hear about anyone’s thoughts or experience of how best to communicate in these different domains.

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