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Barrier Five: Forgetting that the Same Word can mean Different Things to Different People

This barrier relates to the second stage of listening, which is understanding. Words can provoke a reaction in the listener that the speaker didn’t intend. When that happens, the listener won’t be able to hear or pay full attention to what the speaker is saying.

Slang is a great example of this. How would you respond if you heard someone say you are wicked? You may be offended and stop listening and that could mean you would never realize that the speaker really meant you that are brilliant or awesome!

The risk of misunderstandings over the use of words or meaning of body language rises as our society and work places increase in diversity. Diversity can be obvious – as in a group of people from different parts of the world. It can be less obvious, but no less important, among people we would normally group together. People from Nebraska and people from Hawaii are all Americans, but they have very different life experiences.

Our cultural beliefs come from a variety of influences. Our life experiences affect the context in which we see the world, and differing contexts will affect how we interpret messages. Managing diversity is best done through awareness, and what better way to increase your awareness than through attentive and respectful listening? Maintain an open mind and avoid any tendency to jump to conclusions. If certain words or actions do not make sense to you this may be a situation in which it makes sense to ask for help in understanding. A simple question like, “Can you help me understand what you mean by _______” can not only help you understand better, but it’s a sign of respect and engagement as you’re demonstrating that you truly want to know the speaker’s intention. This will help you to return to an active listening mode and allow you to understand what the person is saying more accurately.