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What Exactly Did They Mean? 

By June 27, 2023August 16th, 2023No Comments

By Beth Ellen Holimon

You leave meeting wondering what the person meant by “Let’s schedule that soon.”  Could they have meant something other than “let’s not forget to schedule that”? Could they have been questioning why you have not scheduled that yet? Could they have been implying that you forgot to schedule something else? 

The more power one has (socially or organizationally), the less likely they are to think about different meanings of something said to them.  The path to meaningful dialogue is often obstructed by semantic disagreements, power differentials, and diverse backgrounds. A study on semantic cognition from Louis Marti, et al sheds light on the extent of semantic variation among individuals. Even seemingly simple concepts like “penguin” elicit a wide range of interpretations. For instance, Marti’s team identified “at least 10 to 30 quantifiably different concept variants” associated with the word “penguin.” These variants encompass aspects such as weight perception, noise production, and comparative associations with other animals. Some individuals may envision penguins as heavy due to their waddling, while others may consider them light based on bird skeletons. Additionally, people’s perception of penguins as noisy or their likeness to a finch or a dolphin can differ.

The implication of such semantic variation is significant. Understanding that different individuals may hold diverse concept variants is essential to foster empathy, collaboration, and inclusive discussions. In fact, Marti’s research found that the probability of two people selected at random sharing the same concept of a penguin is only around 12 percent. This highlights the need for us to recognize and appreciate the richness of differing interpretations within their teams.

What Exactly Did They Mean?  Semantic Variation Among Workmates.


In any interaction, power dynamics can influence how semantic disagreements unfold. Individuals in positions of power may inadvertently exert control over conversations, suppressing diverse perspectives and hindering productive dialogue. It is crucial to create a culture that actively addresses power imbalances, encourages equitable participation, and values the insights and experiences of all team members.

Cultivating emotional intelligence is essential for navigating semantic diversity and fostering inclusive office dynamics within nonprofit organizations. By incorporating the following advice from Bill Murphy Jr.’s communication habits, nonprofit professionals can nurture effective communication and understanding:

  1. Starting Conversations the Right Way: Initiate discussions with inclusive language that demonstrates respect and invites diverse perspectives, considering the varied concept variants individuals may hold.
  2. Expressing Shared Emotions: Acknowledge and validate shared emotions without losing control, creating a safe space for empathetic dialogue and understanding differing viewpoints.
  3. Guiding Conversations without Control: Foster an environment of active listening, where everyone feels empowered to contribute their perspectives, regardless of their position in the organization’s hierarchy.
  4. Using Words that Signal Support: Choose words that convey support and empathy, fostering trust and inclusivity, especially when addressing differing interpretations and concepts.
  5. Adjusting Language for Effective Advice: Adapt your language to provide guidance effectively, taking into consideration the diverse backgrounds and experiences of your team members.
  6. Recognizing Strength in Vulnerability: Embrace vulnerability and authenticity, appreciating diverse strengths and perspectives within the team, even when they may initially appear as weaknesses.
  7. Harnessing the Power of Intentional Words: Employ thoughtful language choices that promote respect, inclusivity, and understanding, while being mindful of the potential semantic variations.  Discuss as a team what words and phrases to use and not use. 
  8. Owning Decisions and Recognizing Others’ Limitations: Take responsibility for decisions, particularly when saying “no,” while empathetically recognizing the constraints faced by others due to power dynamics or systemic barriers.
  9. Reflecting and Improving: Engage in regular self-reflection to identify areas for growth, enhance communication skills, and foster continuous improvement, acknowledging the influence of diverse backgrounds and perspectives on semantic understanding.


We are all working to create positive social change, and fostering inclusive workplaces aligns with this mission. Recognizing the impact of power differentials, diverse backgrounds, genders, and race on semantic disagreements is crucial. By prioritizing empathy, active listening, and respect for diverse perspectives, our conversations will keep us up less at night! 


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