1 Big Idea to Think About

  • What we mean by the words we are using is more important than the words we are using.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Ask someone, “How do you say [blank]?
  • Follow up by asking, “What doe that mean to you?

3 Questions to Ask

  • Do I have any perplexing, ongoing misunderstandings with someone?
  • Do I really know what they mean when they are sayin [blank]?
  • How would they respond if I asked them the six-word question, “What does that mean to you?”

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Understanding what people mean (2:41)
  • What we mean by the words we are using is more important even than the words we are using (8:22)
  • “How do you say…?” (12:06)
  • Six words to help you know what someone means (14:24)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn faster so that we can make a higher contribution. 

Have you ever had an ongoing disagreement with somebody that was perplexing for you? Today, I will share a simple story about misunderstanding, something counterintuitive I have learned from it, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to use the most important question in any conversation, especially where misunderstanding is taking place. Let’s go. 

If you want to learn faster, sign up for my 1 Minute Wednesday newsletter at gregmckeown.com.

I have to be careful about how I share this story. Ideally, I would have Anna here on the podcast to be able to talk about it with me, and maybe we’ll do that in the future to see her side of the story. We’ve been married now 22 years, 23 this summer, and one of the themes that has popped up from time to time is how we go about managing money, and how we approach our financial meetings. 

Our differences in temperament means that we approach almost everything differently, and appreciating those differences has been key in being able to build what, I think at least, is an extremely winning team. Nevertheless, there are so many instances in which Anna will see something one way, and I will see it another, or more precisely, there are ways in which we may use the same words to mean something different.

An example in point is financial meetings. Now there’s actually quite a lot to unpack there, but from the earliest days of our marriage, Anna wanted us to have financial meetings, and she wanted to do that, let’s say, more than I did. But even as we evolved and committed ourselves to a regular time and then eventually a weekly meeting, in fact, by a certain point, twice a week, we would have our financial meetings. It still seemed there was something off in our relationship about how we viewed those meetings. I think Anna has a perfectly reasonable side to this, which is being detail-oriented in a variety of things is not my absolute strongest suit. But regarding financial meetings specifically, we started to make several years ago serious progress and got to the point in fact where we had hired extremely competent, thoughtful people to help us make plans and strategies we had made, what I am confident any third-party advisor would consider solid, sensible choices. 

But even then, something seemed off, Anna would say, “We’re just not getting to our financial meetings.” 

And a bit exasperated, at one point, I said, “Well, I don’t know what you mean. We meet, you know, maybe not absolutely every week, but sometimes twice a week and often for several hours.” We are making, and I listed a whole series of things that we were doing right, getting certainly more right than wrong, and finally, it clicked into place that what we meant by financial meeting was not exactly the same. That for Anna, what she meant by financial meeting was a simple, consistent, foolproof way to pay the bills. To get to a point where nothing ever surprised us. That we never got a penalty payment from anywhere or anyone for anything. A system for paying bills had not been my primary focus. Indeed, I had not even understood that was the priority for her. 

This strikes me as not an exceptionally difficult problem to solve, once I understood what the term meant to her. What I learned from this story is how much it means to ask someone what something means. When we are using the same word for something, the same phrase, it’s almost like we operate on the basis that we understand exactly what we mean by that phrase, but what happens if we don’t? This is more than some linguistic, philosophical point. This goes to the very heartbeat of what it means to be able to communicate at all, never mind to be able to communicate clearly. 

But what about you? Have you ever had a habitual communication challenge that one day you discovered could be resolved by defining more clearly what each other meant by the terms you were using? Have you ever been in a situation on a team at work where people were using jargon as if they all meant the same thing, but you could sense underneath something is not clear here? What if we’re only sort of clear and not really clear? What if we are using all of these words and jargon to avoid getting to real clarity underneath to make it sound like we know what we’re talking about? Have you ever had the sense that maybe nobody understood what they really meant by the terms that they were all using so confidently at the surface? 

I remember a story from many years ago, I can’t find a source for it anywhere. It’s the story of a father who has told his son to stop at the corner, that is, not to go into the road. That’s what he means by it. And as his young son runs off, he doesn’t stop at the corner. The father yells after him, quite frustrated and certainly perturbed, really gives him a dressing down. “I told you to stop at the corner.” 

Of course, his concern is for his son’s safety. His son, with tears in his eyes, finally expresses what’s inside, “Daddy, what is a corner?”

Surely what we mean by the words we are using is more important even than the words we are using. Richard Feynman went on to win the Nobel Prize in quantum mechanics, but he also had an extraordinary ability to be able to think clearly, an uncanny ability to be able to get to the heart of the matter, even in a field of study that he wasn’t already familiar with. That is, he was able to learn faster about what the right problems were and how to solve them quickly. And certainly, I have learned and observed this myself that the difference between successful people and very successful people is not how many problems they solve.

It’s whether they solve the right problems in the right way at the right time. Marvin Minsky at MIT said of Feynman, “When Feynman faces a problem, he’s usually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks. He was so unstuck. If something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.” 

We’ll come back to Feynman in a moment. The most powerful phrase I’ve learned as I’ve been starting to learn languages is how to say, how do you say X in this new language? For example, “How do you say hope in French?” Whatever the word is, hope or restaurant or food or anything. If you can learn how to say, how do you say in a new language, you have a key to be able to learn. As soon as you meet someone who knows French and English or Hebrew and English or Spanish and English, you can begin to learn from each other and fast.

To me, there is something profound about that particular question, but you can go further than learning the word in that language. So while I find that to be a useful accelerating question in learning a new language, it’s actually how you can use that question, that idea with someone who speaks the same language as you but means something different. By those words, Feyman pushes us further on this subject. He challenges us to go beyond knowing the name or word for something and to move towards really understanding it. 

When he was interviewed once he was outside in nature, he said, “See that bird, it’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany, it’s called a halzenfugel. And in Chinese, they call it a chung ling. And even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people, what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings and teaches its young to fly and fly so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.” As it’s stated on Farnam Street. (1) 

Knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it. We talk, in fact, deficient, obfuscating, generalities to cover up our lack of understanding. And there it is, how much easier it is to learn the name of a thing, to have a word for a thing than it is to understand what we are really saying, what we really mean by it, what someone else really means by something. So think of that question, how do you say X in your language and think of how it applies to all sorts of words that we all use, but maybe don’t know what we mean. 

How do you say love in your language? Well, that’s what the whole Five Love Languages phenomenon is all about. It’s a hundred percent trying to provide a simple way to answer that question. But of course, there aren’t only just five love languages. There might be as many languages as there are people. Surely we are all speaking in our own language because nobody has had the exact same experiences. So every person is experiencing something and therefore means something different when they use a particular word to describe the life they’ve lived. So in this sense, there are money languages, success languages, career languages, leadership languages, friendship languages, even financial meetings languages, and on it goes. So the moment we get into listening to this second language, we start to get to a much more precise understanding of what someone else means, what they are experiencing, and where they are coming from, and we are no longer strangers to each other, no longer so isolated. 

And what happens when we don’t speak someone else’s language? How confusing can it get if you hear the word cup, when I mean ocean? How wrong can we be? And what if you are in a relationship where that happens 10 times a day for 20 years? What will that relationship be like? How isolated will we be? How wrong can we be with one another and not even know why it’s so hard for us to communicate? A marriage can end up in shreds and strained. Children and parents can be strained and at odds. You can have political groups become utterly incapable of dialogue. So to come to the actionable question, six words in a question, What does X mean to you? That’s it. When somebody says something, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the word is only the tip of the meaning iceberg. The word is a clue, but there’s more underneath it. 

When somebody says something to you, especially if you find your reaction, is to immediately disagree, pause and ask that question, “What does that mean to you?” 

When you say that phrase, what does it mean to you? When somebody at work uses whatever the jargon of the moment is, don’t proceed as if everyone’s talking about the same thing. Ask the simple question, what does it mean to you? Well, we’ve got to achieve these strategic priorities. Before we get to, what do you mean when you say strategic priorities? And maybe they’re going to answer with something else that’s jargon-laden. When they do, just pause for a moment and just say, I want to really understand exactly what is meant. What do you mean when you say…and let them describe it. And you might have to continue in this way, and you might need to be encouraging as you do it because it might feel quite challenging to the person that you’re asking the question to. Keep offering, explaining why you are asking the question. I really want to understand. I want to understand what this means to you so that we can work together. 

So we’ve covered the most important question in any language, even if that’s a language between you and one other person. The simplest of questions. What does X mean to you? What does love mean to you? What does success mean to you? What does trust mean to you? What does happiness mean to you?

What is one action you can immediately take within the next 24 to 48 hours to accelerate your learning? And who is one person you can share that application with within the next 24 to 48 hours? 

A reminder that if you haven’t already done so, to go and sign up for the One Minute Wednesday newsletter. It’s a free resource. You just go to gregmckeown.com, and it’s up there in the top right-hand corner. It will come to you, of course, every Wednesday, and helps to reinforce the learning that we cover in this podcast. And, of course, in the books, Essentialism and in Effortless. 

The list is growing at an exceedingly positive rate. We’re up to, I think, 145,000 people now and counting. If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first three people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more details on that, go to essentialism.com/podcast promo. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.

(1) (2015). Richard Feynman: Knowing the Name of Something. [online] Farnam Street. Available at: https://fs.blog/richard-feynman-knowing-something/#:~:text=See%20that%20bird%3F [Accessed 23 Feb. 2023].