Trigger Words and the Breakdown of Communication

Words are powerful. Our ability to craft and shape our interactions with people through words is one of those fundamental things we often take for granted. It’s naturally a part of our everyday–so instinctive that we probably don’t stop to give it proper consideration. But words matter, and our associations with particular words matter.

And because words are so powerful, they come with responsibilities, consequences, and so much potential for good or ill. This is why dictionaries exist; they help us to normalize language to some degree, and they establish standards for the responsible use of words. But sometimes even dictionary definitions cannot stop the breakdown of communication, and this is usually because words have not been imparted or received honestly. Someone has been irresponsible.

Because we are multi-faceted creatures and not simply machines, we import feelings and emotions and experiences into our understanding of language. We import visual cues and body language. We import pain and happiness into our experiences with words. And this complicates things both as speakers and hearers.

All the descriptors in the world cannot fully explain to you the taste of your very favorite food, for example. Poetry might come close, because it can encapture intellect and emotion, but anything short of the experience will fall short from actually enlightening someone on the true taste of that magnificent food.

The same is true for something so basic as mother or father. We all have them, but we have all had different experiences with them. For some of us mother might communicate nurture, but for others it might communicate pain. And the trouble of it is that every single person has his or her own trigger words, and unless you know what you’re walking into, you could be in for a surprise when a normal conversation suddenly falls to pieces or takes a drastic turn to a place that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you.

This is because our experiences shape us, and our associations influence our understanding of words, particularly as we initially react to them. This cannot be helped.

“Are we going to penalize people simply because they hit a personal landmine?”

However, what can be helped is how we choose to interact with words in our conversations. Are we going to be people who allow our own experiences to prejudice or blind us? Are we going to penalize people simply because they hit a personal landmine? Or are we going to play fair, seek the best and clearest understanding possible, and attempt to understand what the person is actually trying to communicate?

And on the other side, are we going to choose our words rashly and without consideration for our particular audience, or are we going to think through the potential landmines up front?

The reality is we all have a responsibility when it comes to communication, and if we’re constantly frustrated by the outcome of conversations, then we need to become better communicators. And that can mean either improving our own use of words or doing a better job of really listening without importing our own biases, emotions, and experiences into every interaction.

This isn’t easy to do. In fact, it requires care and discipline most of us don’t want to give it. It also requires a bit of introspection many people fear, because we can no longer simply react to words the way we feel like reacting based on experience, emotion, or anything else that tends to be more subjective.

The simple reality is that words do have fairly agreed-upon meanings in our culture. We have books and websites explaining them. So, when we choose to be dishonest with words, we’re really choosing to ignore reality and replace it with our own version. And that’s not fair to anyone, not even our own selves.

So, the next time you find yourself deep in conversation, take the time to think through your words and how they might be received. And take the time to think through the very best way the other person’s words could be understood. If you find yourself reacting emotionally to a word, stop and ask for clarification on what that person means by the word. And believe them.

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Beka Johnson
Beka Johnson
Beka is an inbound marketer for a tech startup in the Seattle area. She loves dabbling, reading, scheming, writing, and dreaming up ways to make good things better. When she's not working, you can find her digging up all sorts of adventures in her new city.
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