Why is a common language important?
The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right namesa Chinese proverb
Have you ever been in a meeting where people are talking about the same public health issue, but just can’t seem to move beyond “what are we trying to accomplish?” Well, perhaps one reason is that the group has never taken time to decide upon a common language. Every meeting participant typically uses the words and labels for ideas that are associated with their organization or community. Often, the organization also has multiple terms for expressing the same ideas.
Wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgement; the quality of being wise1. It will take intentional action and decision to move with wisdom from “meetings as usual” to meetings that support improved maternal health outcomes. Wisdom is critical in addressing complex issues that relate to inequities in maternal health.
Communities share a common language which allows members to share ideas and to feel connected. Community partnerships and working groups need a common language to build this sense of community in meetings. When a meeting lacks shared understanding of the terms used in conversations, it is hard to feel connected to the group and the overall purpose of its work. Concentrating becomes a challenge, as members are busy trying to figure out what is being discussed. Throw in a few acronyms, “The ADP indicators will guide SOPs,” and you are in the zoom zone. (Zoom Zone: That period after multiple zoom meetings during the covid-19 pandemic where your day is like one long zoom meeting).
While acronyms are easy to look up, understanding terms can be more complex as different people have different meanings for the same word. The definition of “result” or “strategy” is clear, but those words may convey something different, depending on who uses the term. For example, a group member could say the result they are working on is improved internet connection for pregnant mothers to ensure healthy births. From this statement, improving the internet connection sounds more like a strategy that can help support the result – healthy births. Having a clear, overarching result statement gives people the space to brainstorm and develop various strategies or methods to achieve it.
We are in a cycle of building new teams or joining existing ones where individuals may have different meanings for similar phrases. The words we use matter. It can take time to understand what everyone means when they say words like provider, service, platform, results, indicators, and performance measures. We need processes to ensure that all members have a shared understanding of the different terms’ meanings so that communication is simple and straightforward. As the old wise saying goes, ‘wisdom starts when we call things by the right names.’ Common names for the steps we are taking ensures that we all have a shared understanding of the problem. A common language enables us to communicate effectively within an organization and to all the stakeholders.
If you want people to understand you, speak their languagean African proverb
When engaging communities that are most negatively affected by maternal mortality and morbidity, a common language ensures that we understand each other. Creating a space where we have the same understanding will help us learn how to speak the language of the communities we engage with and vice versa. Somewhere along the way, we will become a community as we collaborate to improve the health of the mothers across the US.
How can we build a common language?
- We can start by creating a list of definitions. This should be a living, breathing document where members can define and continually add new terms throughout the program. The list can be used for reference and also shared with external partners to ensure effective communication. A tool for creating a common language can be found in the book “Trying Hard is not Good Enough” by Mark Friedman2, a schematic is shown in figure 1. The list will not work if we do not have the discipline to use the definitions.
Table 1: Tool for Choosing a Common Language Schematic
|A condition of well-being for children, |
adults, families and communities
- Appoint a common language champion, not to be confused with the language police. A champion is similar to a language teacher, someone who is passionate about getting the team/community to speak in a way that we all understand. This role requires patience, as will learning the common language. Individuals who have ever had to learn or teach a new language know that it can take multiple corrections to get the language right.
The expert advice
- Just kidding! We are not experts on common language; therefore, we invite you to share tips on what has helped build a common language in your team and the communities you engage in your work. Join the discussion with us on LinkedIn.
1. Lexico (n.d.). Wisdom. Retrieved January 17, 2021, from https://www.lexico.com/definition/wisdom
2. Friedman, M. (2005). Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough. British Columbia. Trafford Publishing.