Creating Shared Meaning

By Chris Chittenden

"There is a profound difference between information and meaning.”

… Warren Bennis (1925 - ) US educator, futurologist, adviser and writer

One of the key aspects of the spatial leadership approach lies in the creation of shared meaning amongst the group being led. Although this would seem like a very obvious and straightforward thing to do, it seems to be done rather poorly in most organisations. Why is this and how can meaning be better shared?

To understand the challenge in developing shared meaning, it is important to initially understand just what is meant by “meaning”. The word “meaning” refers to the gist or essence of something or some situation. The word can also refer to the significance of something. From a leadership perspective, both of these meanings are important. Clearly leaders want others to get to the shared basic understanding of any given situation and to share the significance of that understanding in relation to how the group does what it does.

You may recall from previous newsletters that in ontological coaching, we distinguish the linguistic action of making an assessment. An assessment is an interpretation we make of something, someone or some situation that we use to determine how we respond to a given circumstance. As interpretations, they rely on placing our observations into the context that is there for us at the time we are making the assessment. The same observation in a different context will likely generate a different interpretation or meaning.

To understand this better, let’s look at an example. Say you look through the window of a house and see a shabbily dressed man getting a child who looks about ten years old to inject him with a needle. You have just been told that there is a big drug problem in this neighbourhood. What meaning do you make of this situation? Given the recent context that has been established, you may well see this as a situation where an adult is involving a minor in the drug world. However, if a man walked past you, saw you looking disgustedly in the window and told you that the man was a diabetic then you may well change you interpretation of the situation.

The key word here is “context”. The context can be seen as the frame of reference in which interpretations are made and a context ALWAYS exists. The key to developing shared meaning then lies in developing a shared context that can be readily applied in any given circumstance. If we are to develop shared meaning with those we lead then we must create a shared context for them. This is where leaders often fall down. They neglect to consider the context and often do not know how to effectively create it.

We have found the most effective way of creating a shared context lies in simplicity and consistency. The context has to be simple because it has to be easily remembered and easily applied. This is important because people are making interpretations constantly and simplicity allows people the opportunity have an easy reference point to which to come back. Consistency is about frequent reinforcement to ensure that the context sticks with people. Applied together, simplicity and consistency provide the basis to create a solid frame of reference leading to a shared context and greater shared meaning.

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© 2009 Chris Chittenden