Meeting of the minds.

Language is Never Quite Right

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership


What do you hear when I speak? I’m trying to paint a word picture of what I see in my mind so that you see “the same picture” in your mind. I share those words with you. We speak the same language. Let’s agree that the language, whatever it is, is native to both of us. But I have no idea what the resulting picture actually is in your mind. And if/when you try to explain to me what you’re “seeing,” we have the same exact problem in reverse.  Human communication, as awesome and as powerful as it is, is also very flawed.

Meeting of the Minds

Meeting of the minds.

As far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter what language we speak. All the languages have the same problem. What you believe a word means and what I believe a word means can have subtle yet significant differences. I suppose it is much the same as trying to agree on what a color we are looking at might really be. Do you see the same blue I see? What I call blue, you may call gray.

Sometimes, I hear a person speak who has a phenomenal vocabulary. They may use a word with which I am not familiar. I will often make an assumption, based on context, about what the speaker meant. However, I have been wrong many times, and if I hadn’t looked up the word in question, I would have ascribed a completely opposite meaning to what the speaker declared.

Accountable versus Responsible

When it comes to communicating, who is accountable and who is responsible? First, what is the difference between accountable and responsible? Here is a definition:

The main difference between responsibility and accountability is that responsibility can be shared while accountability cannot be shared. Being accountable not only means being responsible for something but also ultimately being answerable for your actions. Also, accountability is something you hold a person to only after a task is done or not done. Responsibility can be before and/or after a task.

So it seems to me, as a leader, in the end, I have to be accountable for what was heard. That is to say, I am ultimately answerable for the communication. Did it achieve what I intended?

Not to put too fine a point on this — during the conversation I (and you) are responsible for what is being said and what is being heard. We have a common task of making sure the communication is clear and that whatever task or information is shared was given and received accurately. Once we have agreed that the communication has been consummated, then the “leader” is 100% accountable for what was heard.

Leaders may not like that, but I’m afraid we have no choice really. We cannot, in good conscience, foist off a misunderstanding on the other person. You were responsible to make sure you got your message across clearly, succinctly and precisely. Once you were satisfied that you had done so, then you are accountable for the results. That is our lot in leadership life.

In Conclusion

I believe that achieving a complete meeting of the minds between humans is next to impossible. Language is never quite right. What I see in my own mind about the reality of a situation is first biased, second inaccurately translated to my own words, and third, the imperfect words I choose to express what I envision and feel mean something different to the listener. The situation is fraught with even more miscommunication when we involve many people in the process. What then, is the responsibility of the speaker and the listener and who is accountable for the results?

In the leadership circles I frequent, we say that, as a leader, “I am 100% accountable for what gets heard.” That’s an awesome responsibility. But I must hold myself accountable for what gets heard. If your head is spinning, then I’ve proven my point about human communication, eh?