Words: Stop and Define What You Mean

More and more the “meaning’ of words in our ombudsman profession are changing.  They are influenced by popular media and conflicted by generational shifts in how we use words to “say what we mean”.  I personally have always emphasized just how important it is to stop and define a word if needed, to communicate clearly and more and more this is a problem for ombudsmen, mediators, arbitrators, litigators, negotiators and leaders.

Have you noticed lately the “spin” on words in the media?  How can it be that Ben Bernake can sit before a congressional committee and bite his tongue on the “N” word anymore?  He won’t say it!  Last year I sent a mass e-mail out telling everyone to prepare for “socialism of our corporate and financial institutions” or the “N” word, nationalization.  I got negative feedback for even saying such “blasphemy”, but it was the reality and it is the reality now, today.  We are a hybrid social-ocracy now with democratic processes.  More trends are coming as “free market capitalism” as we know it will never come back again.  What words are coming now to describe what we are becoming as a country and society?  I can’t tell you, the reader, how important it is to call a duck a duck if it waddles, quakes, has feathers and a beak.  It may not be the species you “think of as a duck”, but it is, there are many hybrid species and many expanding meanings to words nowadays.  So if you can’t say “duck” say what you mean when linking words in communications.

Things are “waking up” in our profession regarding the words we use to convey what we mean.  This is a subtle yet constant theme in our communications.  The word “conflict” by example is a difficult word to carry in the title of your function, your practice or office in terms of “what you do” as a service to other human beings.  Why?  Conflict has become the preferred word to describe genocide and war.  The media does this to make the news easier to hear and watch, but they should just stick with the high impact words to fit the meaning of the “reality” they show us in video and photos on the news.  Shouldn’t they?  For us, it’s wise to stop and define “conflict” for anyone we are engaged with.  Good can come from conventional low impact conflict between individuals, groups and communities if ombuds are there to help keep perspective.  The same holds true for “dispute”, which has a “lesser impact” than conflict in terms of connotation.  Still, how many times have we heard “border dispute” to describe gun shots between two countries at a state demarcation?  Last summer the conflict between Russia and Georgia was “de-escalated” by the media into a dispute as time passed.  Was that a conflict or dispute?   Define your words in every presentation and statement, especially given consideration of your audience who will reject you and every attempt to guide them if you can’t get through on the parity of meaning in the words used by our profession.

Of equal or more concern are the acronyms we use such as ADR or Alternative Dispute Resolution.  In context of my discussion with people ADR means an alternative to legal arbitration and litigation yet lawyers continue to embrace a parallel meaning for ADR that in reality is more in line with “forced” decisions and outcomes and these include the word mediation if an attorney is using the word.  The defining factor is if the facilitator determines the outcome and it’s even more so if “awards” are “ordered” as an end result.  Make sure the person you are in service to knows the difference and let them choose the type of process and outcome they desire.

If you haven’t noticed, new words are made each day in our society, some catch on, some don’t and die out.  I’ve already had one discussion in this blog regarding such an event that trapped me into an issue of using “new Internet lexicon” or holding to the traditional dictionary declaration of the word being “valid” or not.  For the ombudsman profession and all “overlapping” and linked practices there must begin to be a clear and defined differentiation of our practice and it must be communicated or else we are not being fair, clear and ethical in our practice.

Then again, none of the above really matters at all IF you stop and define what you mean.

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