In my consulting work, whenever I notice conflict I stop the discussion and work on defining the words we use. I found out from experience that many of the problems that cause miscommunication, and thus conflict, stem from the fact that people use the same word but have different definitions for them.

It reminds me of the story from the Old Testament: When the people started to build the tower of Babel, God mixed up their language and they had difficulty communicating. My interpretation of this story is that up to that time the people were nomadic and agricultural. When they became urban and settled, and thus started building towers, there was a significant strategic change. There were new phenomena that needed new words, which the nomadic life did not provide because it did not have that experience. Take, for instance, the word “scaffold.” You need that word to describe the structure you will use to build towers, but such a word was not created by the nomadic culture because they weren’t building towers.

I believe that with all the technological advances we have in the modern world, we are having a new “Tower of Babel” experience. I find enormous confusion because new phenomena are created for which there are no words. People use old words to point to new phenomena or create a new word no one has ever heard of, and the confusion is in full swing.

I spent a day in one company just defining the words “module” and “subsystem.” There was much mobility in the company because it was growing so fast. People brought vocabulary from their previous jobs to the new one, and since people came from so many different companies it became a new tower of Babel. People weren’t able to communicate. It went so far that what one person understood “budget” to mean was not what the other person understood it to be.

In another company I spent almost two days in very heated debate over what is meant by the word “engineering.” I was helping them restructure the company, and in order to structure engineering we had to define what it means.

I was amazed that we filled two full walls with flip pages on which we wrote the different types of engineering that exist. There was the easy-to-understand electrical engineering as different from mechanical and civil engineering. But then we hit a real block: “systems engineering.” What is that? A debate ensued with some people claiming that it does not exist and others threatening to resign from the company because they had a degree in systems engineering and felt disrespected. There was product development engineering, and sustaining engineering. The question became: When does product development engineering end and sustaining engineering start? And what is the difference between maintenance engineering and sustaining engineering?

Complicating the discussion was that some people “upgraded” something by giving it a new word with the same meaning. Like calling what used to be maintenance engineering “sustaining engineering.” (I’ve found this phenomenon in sales, too. People feel offended to be just “salesmen” so some call themselves “marketing engineers.” How silly!)

There was something called value engineering, and human resources engineering, not to mention reengineering, which referred to organizational restructuring; and quality control engineering, as different from quality assurance engineering; and financial engineering as different from accounting. In other words, everything became “engineering,” and it was impossible to restructure the company until all the different meanings were cleared up.

People do not usually like this exercise. For some interesting reason, which I have not understood yet, discussions about word definitions generate a lot of emotional responses. People get really upset defending their definition or understanding of a word as if the Lord gave it to them on Mount Sinai and theirs is the only correct definition. I have to use all my skills of integration to keep the group from falling apart or stopping the session all together.

To release stress I use a joke to show them why defining words is so important:

A young man goes to the doctor and says, “I want a castration.” The doctor is surprised and tries to convince the man not to do so because he is still young, etc. The young man insists that it is his religious conviction and he wants to do it and that is that.

The surgeon makes him sign a release, wheels him to the surgery room, cuts his testicles off and wheels him to the recuperation room. When the young man wakes up he realizes that there is another young man the other bed in the room.

“What are you here for?” he asks.

“For a circumcision,” the other man answers

“Ah, that is what I meant!”

So please define your words-do you mean castration or circumcision?-or you might end up impotent as a company….

Dr. Adizes