The Best, Yet Most Underutilized Tool for Communication There Is

AND it won’t cost you a dime.

So much of my management coaching practice is about providing people with better tools for the common problems they continue to struggle with. At times, these “new” tools are actually things we learned way back when we were in school. We had tuned out our teachers while we were learning them, thinking, “When will I ever use this stuff?” Well, lo and behold, you became a manager, and that when is now.

For instance, there is a certain tool I have found to be extremely effective in clearing up all sorts of communication glitches in organizations and it works almost instantly. It’s something most of us learned about way back in our primary school English classes, but we forgot about it that long ago too, because our English teachers were pretty much the only people who talked about it. Once I remembered it, I discovered it to be one of the most powerful communication tools we could use in our company so that expectations would be clear.

That tool, harking back to English 101, is vocabulary.

Today, vocabulary could very well be the single best tool I have as a coach in helping teams and entire organizations clean up the chaos and rubble that bad communication habits litters our workplaces with. Vocabulary and the Managing with Aloha concept of Language of Intention.

Flickr Photo: “day 87 – Love Letters” by margolove.
So many words! And so many meanings…

According to, “the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words.”

With so many words to choose from, if you speak English, chances are that intentional vocabulary is something you need pretty badly at work. Think how your chances for potential confusion exponentially increase when you work in a multi-lingual melting pot of cultures as we have here in Hawai‘i. We even have a form of broken English here known as pidgin that is behind-the-scenes acceptable, and a kind of rite of passage into becoming local!

You leave the words which are spoken in your organization open to interpretation when you are not specific about defining them. On the other hand, creating concise vocabulary within an organization will shape the language you specifically choose to employ when you communicate with each other.

In the work world, think of vocabulary as your misconception killer.

My experience has been that people don’t find vocabulary conversations at work insulting or condescending. (And you aren’t starting from scratch with this and completely constructing an entire language; you are choosing certain targets to clarify.) On the contrary, people become very grateful that we didn’t assume so much and made our intent so clearly known. Even when people define words correctly, they can misinterpret the context in which they are used, or find that they are just too broad and not succinct enough. In these cases, vocabulary becomes a tool for narrowing down the variables; it can save heaps of time because intention is so immediately clear.

Let’s look at a few examples of common work related words that are often used interchangeably in many organizations, and I’ll explain how we use them very specifically in my MWA coaching to create our own “Language of Intention” with them.

Objective and Goal

For us, our objectives are the strategic objectives which are company wide, shared by every single person in the organization. In contrast, goals relate to people individually, and what they wish to learn and achieve to grow within the organization on a personal basis.

If I set an appointment with you, saying I would like to discuss your goals, you immediately know which I mean: You don’t waste your time preparing an update or report for me on where your department stands on our shared strategic objectives. You do prepare to have a more personal coaching conversation with me.

An important note on these definitions:

The dictionary may not necessarily agree with us on this, and in fact, even the different dictionaries published don’t agree with each other!   However we have agreed on the definition we will use in our company culture, and we stick with it consistently.

Systems and Processes

With these two words, process is the word of choice when the ways things work involve the performance of people. This is easy to remember for us, in that we keep the 3 P’s of people, performance, and process together. On the other hand, systems refer to things like paper trails, electronic and IT systems, and those largely automated structures we have in place; they are universally “systemic” and not driven by individual choice. Once the setting part is done, the people involvement is minimal.

Management and Leadership

Both such robust, intricate, and complex verbs! We find it useful to use ‘classic Webster’ on this one:

“Manage; to bring about or succeed in accomplishing; contrive.

Lead; to go before or with to show the way, conduct or escort.”

Generally management is about our operational strategies and leadership our visionary ones.

[I have written much on management versus leadership, and if you are interested, this page on Say Leadership Coaching is a good, fairly concise place to start.]

Which concepts would you love to have better defined in your company? How can specific vocabulary help cut through confusion and ambiguity for you?

Every manager has a hand ”“ and a powerful voice ”“ in creating their own organizational culture. Establishing a departmental vocabulary is one of the best, and easiest ways to make the culture you choose happen, when the vocabulary you use matches up to a crystal clear, and consistent intention everyone within your department has agreed upon.

The best news of all? No upper level leadership involvement (or approval) is required. Language of Intention is both tool and building block in understanding how you make things happen in your own circle of influence.

Two Huge Benefits

There are two significant benefits with using well-chosen vocabulary to create a language of intention in your culture, one for the manager, and one for the people that manager leads and coaches.

For you as a manager: Understand the common-sense of consistency with the Language of Intention. When you harness it and practice it, honoring your own good word will be so much easier, and it will become a hallmark of your reputation. No one at work will ever say you do not “walk the talk” again.

Always tell the truth.
That way you don’t have to remember what you said.

—Mark Twain

For your people: Create a common Language of Intention for your ‘Ohana in Business, and the power of words will connect to shared knowledge, the sense of belonging, cohesive thought, and the greater perception by the customer of staff harmony and initiative.

Restaurant Customer:
I notice that you and your bus-person are so efficient, communicating so well, yet with so little conversation between you; how do you do it?


Well sir, I suppose that’s because we talk about what we do all the time.

Try this exercise:

It is simple, but extremely revealing.

For the next 7 days Listen with on-purpose focus. Collect the common vocabulary you are
hearing in the workplace. If others use words, slang, and phrases that you
aren’t familiar with, ask them to explain them to you. Get in the conversation by adopting what you like and what feels natural to you: Using what is already in
your departmental culture and working well is a way of telling your staff you
value them and the way they already communicate with each other: When you honor
what works, you honor them.

Conversely, try to pick up both common
understanding and misunderstanding, watching the way that each leads to
interpretation and consequence. Log your results and you will have your vocabulary hit-list.

Come back here when your 7-day experiment is over, and let me know what you discover, would you?

Vigilant Vocal Vibrant Vigorous Vivacious Victorious Vocabulary… va-va-voom! Learn how Voluptuous it can be :)

A Sunday Mālama posting on Managing with Aloha Coaching:
Remembering a Simpler Language


  1. Dean Boyer says

    You are so right! I love words…and hate words. Leveling the playing field through definitions has helped me immensely when creating policy and procedure manuals. However, it is during conversations that I find myself being misunderstood because those involved are using their own set of definitions. Thank you for the listening assignment; I could have used that yesterday!

  2. says

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  3. says

    Mahalo Dean, for sharing that observation, for I agree that there are different (and pretty intriguing) variables involved in our conversations.
    On the exercise I have suggested, this is also about a *respectful kind of eavesdropping* too, a perking up of managers’ ears to help them discover just how much conversation is already going on in the workplace, and tapping in to the possible goldmine it represents.
    And by the way, good job on your internal logging of yesterday’s lesson-learned! Now today can be Ka lā hiki ola for you – the dawning of a whole new day :)

  4. Linda says

    Hello Rosa,
    I just recently discovered your postings. I agree completely about developing a common vocabulary among teams. I have also had some interesting, though unsettling experiences, where in using pretty common words the listener gets completely lost, and feels that they need the message translated for them. This seams to happen more often with executives than any other group. This has happened often enough that I actually have developed the habit of rethinking what I am going to say to use very small words. It can be frustrating for me, but I value my message being heard more then my desire to utilize the vocabulary I have. It never ceases to amaze me how limited ones “active” vocabulary can become.

  5. says

    Aloha Linda, welcome to Talking Story, and thank you so much for sharing your comment with me ”“ it’s so interesting! I wonder if this happens “more often with executives than any other group” because they are (supposedly) the more ‘seasoned’ ones who usually do have a longer history of getting bombarded with both business-speak and posturing by others among their ranks, building an almost cynical, *I need to cautiously question everything* kind of demeanor?
    You are wise to value meaning getting conveyed over fancy broadcasting of the message however, and your keen perception with this will surely earn you a terrific reputation as a communicator.
    Thank you so much for this food for thought you’ve added.

  6. says

    From Book Yourself Solid: How to Talk About What You Do (a mini review)

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