Rhetorical Precision and Clear Communications

“Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding.  France’s proposed solidarity contribution on airline tickets is a tax.  The IMF’s relational capitalism is corruption. The British solicitor-general’s evidentiary deficiency was no evidence, and George Bush’s reputational problem just means he was mistrusted.”   — Economist,  (Blog, July 7, 2010)

Word choice is most often used to solve for expressing intent.  Yet, many of our languages are dynamic.  Between 1590 and 1610 alone, 6,000 new words were added every year to the English language.

Language is both an instrument and an environment:

  • Some words do not survive
  • Others mutate into existence (eg, Google, when used as a verb)

Unlike French or Italian, English is not a fixed or static language.  The meanings of English words are “not established, approved, and firmly set by some official committee charged with preserving its dignity and integrity.”  The English language is renowned for its “capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility.”

The English language in particular represents a mashing of words from most major languages, for example:

National Origin Term Original Meaning
Greek Criterion Means of judgement
Latin Fact An act or feat
Italian Ditto Already said
Malaysian Amok Rushing in a frenzy
Persian Caravan Traveling company
Turkish Kiosk Pavilion
Dutch Cruise To cross
Hindi Guru Weighty grave
Cantonese Ketchup Tomato juice
Arabic Sofa Seat
Japanese Shogun General
Gaelic Trousers Pattern of drawers
North America Herstory Female perspective
Mayan Hurricane Mayan god, Huracan

The English language is particularly rich because it has been provided with a heritage of diversity—a basis in many languages.  Three in particular provide the frequent opportunity to use a synonym, or a word that means something similar.  Unfortunately, a synonym does not imply pure equivocation, and group consensus building may be challenged by the similar, yet different meaning of terms borrowed from Anglo-Saxon, French, and Latin/ Greek origins as shown in the following chart.

Anglo-Saxon French Latin/ Greek
Ask Question Interrogate
Dead Deceased Defunct
End Finish Conclude
Fair Beautiful  Attractive
Fast Firm Secure
Fear Terror Trepidation
Help Aid Assist
Time Age Epoch

Dictionaries alone are insufficient because they provide a description of what something has meant and not a prescription of what it should mean.  There are eight parts of speech in the English language (not true for all languages).  The parts of speech explain what a word is, but not how it is being used. The only way to distinguish among the various meanings of words is from looking at the usage, or context.  In language the context is provided by grammar.

Single terms, without comprehensive context, can challenge people.  The word “occurrence” caused nearly $5.0BN of risk for the insurance companies of the World Trade Center Towers since the buildings were insured per “occurrence.”  Even the term “country” is a surprisingly difficult term to define.  US Homeland Security offers 251 choices for the “country where you live” but that number is not agreed to by other countries.  The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, for example, has only two buildings in Rome but has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries.  The Vatican is only 4 hectares in the middle of Italy’s capital and is but is only an observer at the United Nations.  Israel joined the world body in 1949, but 19 of the 192 United Nations members do not accept the Jewish state’s existence.  One-third of UN members recognize Kosovo, but not the UN itself.  Your organization may have similar cultural differences when defining the term “customer.”

Oddly, context alone does not ensure consensual meaning since the English language includes contronyms, or words that mean the opposite of themselves, in context.  For example, “to bolt” can mean to fix securely or to run away; or, “to clip” that can mean to fasten or to detach, etc. Context and standards help dictate common usage and enable us to arrive at a framework where all the participants share common meaning.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

Related articles

How to Manage Group Conflict Resulting in Higher Quality Deliverables

Don’t Run

A facilitator sees conflict in a workshop coming from the group and coming from within.  Internal and external conflict reflect emotions that, when harnessed, enable creative change.  A facilitator must understand and manage conflict.  A meeting without conflict is a boring meeting, and we’ve seen very little value derived from predictable and unexciting meetings and workshops.

Additionally the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) aspires for you to:

  • “Help individuals identify and review underlying assumptions
  • Recognize conflict and its role within group learning / maturity
  • Provide a safe environment for conflict to surface
  • Manage disruptive group behavior
  • Support the group through resolution of conflict”


Facilitators manage groups.  You must first understand how groups function and appropriate ways to help them without impeding their progress.  Here we discuss the evolution of groups and the types of group leadership to exhibit.

Managing Group Conflict

A Group Life Cycle

Groups, like people, develop and evolve.  They can also regress.  As a session leader, you are responsible for moving a group through a developmental process.  Most groups strive to evolve through four stages as they develop through this life cycle.  For any given group, you may see only the first two or three stages.  Do not forget—in a room of ten people, there are at least eleven personalities!

Stages and characteristics include:

  • Forming Orientation, hesitant participation, search for meaning, dependency
  • Storming Conflict, dominance, rebelliousness, power
  • Norming Expression of opinions, development of group cohesion
  • Performing Emergence of solutions, formation of a “team”

Note:   The four stages are adapted from Tuckman, B.W., “Development sequence in small groups,” Psychological Bulletin, 1965, 63, 384-399.

Stage 1

Forming— Key word: Confusion.  Groups at this early stage are working on two primary areas, the reason they are there (purpose) and social relationships.  Some landmarks:

  • Concern over purpose, relevance of meeting, “How this helps?”
  • Looking to the leader for structure, answers, approval, acceptance
  • “Why are we here?”
  • Quiet groups
  • Looking to the leader to prove that the session will work

Cultures that find themselves locked into this stage are frequently described as “Command Control” where all decision-making is done by superiors.  Participants meanwhile stay focused on “I” such as, “I wish I had eaten something before this meeting.”

Stage 2

Storming—Key words: Conflict (differences) and creativity.  Groups begin to acknowledge differences in perspectives; conflict is characteristic between members or between members and leader.  Some landmarks:

  • Struggle for control
  • Some members with strong needs to dominate
  • Possible hostility toward leader
  • Looking to, expecting the leader to be magical
  • Open expression of differences
  • Accepting conflicts as sources of creativity

Cultures in this phase focus on cultivating and changing through personal and professional improvement.  Participants get nudged to begin thinking about what “It” is that justified our time together.

Stage 3

Norming—Key words: communication and commitment.  Rather than focusing on differences, members begin to recognize the commonality and shared interests.  The participants are more comfortable about expressing their opinions.  Some landmarks:

  • More open communication
  • Still some unwillingness to be fully responsible for outcome
  • Inter-member support

Cultures here display and value competence, especially on the expert capabilities of a few members of the group or team.  Individuals can start thinking about the deliverables and how it impacts “Thou” people throughout the organization

Stage 4

Performing—Key words: Communication, community, consensus, and commitment.  Rather than focusing on differences, members begin to recognize the commonality and shared interests.  The participants form a cohesive team—they unite.  Some landmarks:

  • Open communication
  • Pride in the group
  • Focus on getting the shared goals, task of the group accomplished
  • Inter-member support

Here we have a collaborative culture where decisions are consensus driven and the team works in complete partnership toward success.  The individuals view themselves as an integral unit, known as “We”.

Not Clear

Boundaries between stages are not always clear, nor does a group permanently move from one stage.  As facilitator, you guide the group through the earlier stages into performing.


In working with the group during a meeting, you need to gauge how the group, as a whole, is able to perform the task at hand.  Depending on the readiness of the group, you as process leader will lead in different ways.

Readiness consists of two qualities, job or task readiness and psychological readiness (motivation, confidence).


To assess the group’s readiness, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. “Do they have the necessary skills or information?” (task readiness).  Groups in Stages 1 and 2 lack task readiness.
  2. “Do they have the appropriate emotional qualities or resources (relationship readiness)?”  Groups in Stages 2 and 3 lack relationship readiness.

Groups in Stage 4 are ready to do the task and build relationships.

Leadership Styles

As leader, you monitor these two dimensions (task and relationship) constantly on both a group and an individual level.

As you do, you express your assessment of the situation in two types of leader behavior.  These are:

  • Task/ directive behavior (ie, process policeman)
  • Relationship behavior (ie, empathetic listening)
For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST Professional Facilitative Leadership training  session offered around the world (see http://www.mgrush.com/ for a current schedule).

How to Use “Pros and Cons” with a Group of People



This tool supports decision-making for a group of people.  It can be viewed as a surrogate to Benjamin Franklin’s “Pros & Cons” method, whose approach is better suited for an individual than a group of people.  Especially with controversial issues, it is helpful to consider multiple points of view.Two Sides of Every Issues


To discuss a controversial issue, carefully (and with advanced forethought about the need for a homogeneous, heterogeneous, or hybrid blend) separate your participants into three teams: Affirmative, Dismissive, and Observer.  Give the affirmative and dismissive teams each 15 minutes to develop their arguments, respectively supporting and refuting the issue.  The observer team drafts the criteria by which it may evaluate the issue.  Have each team present their arguments to the observer team—like in a debate or court of law.  Next . . .

  • The affirmative and dismissive teams prepare for a two-minute rebuttal to defend their positions.
  • The audience group then describes the criteria they suggest using to decide the issue, based on the arguments presented by both affirmative and dismissive groups.
  • The groups are given another five minutes to revise their arguments based on audience criteria and the debate sequence described above is repeated.
  • After the second round, the teams reform as one to discuss the issue.  If the discussion reaches an impasse, switch team members, carefully placing the louder voices on the teams opposite of their apparent voice so the are forced to the other side.

Do not polarize the participants.  Ensure that the teams are made up of people who hold a variety of views.  You select the teams—do not allow the participants to choose.  In most debate contests, the side you must defend is not known until minutes before the debate, so that the debaters are forced to show-up prepared to argue either side.


The benefits of the exercise are that it:

  • Stretches the issues, criteria, and perspectives.
  • Allows the group to build a stronger view of all sides of the issue.
  • Typically provides more robust and coherent arguments, issues, and criteria.

Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs)

How to Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment

The primary responsibility of a facilitator is to protect the participants.  Secondarily, the facilitator helps drive the group toward its desired deliverable.  Since the deliverable is built to serve the participants, the people take priority over the issues.  To some extent, both people and issues are managed by creating an environment that is conducive to productivity.  Easier said, than done.

Additionally the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) encourages you to “Demonstrate effective participatory and interpersonal communication skills . . .

  • Apply a variety of participatory processes
  • Demonstrate effective verbal communication skills
  • Develop rapport with participants
  • Practice active listening
  • Demonstrate ability to observe and provide feedback to participants”

The “zen” of the experience warns us that participants will respond to stimuli differently.  Psychologist Howard Gardner identified eight distinct types of intelligence.  He claims that all humans have the spark of genius buried within, but they manifest differently among us.  The eight types include:

  1. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (“Body Smart”)
  2. Interpersonal Intelligence (“People Smart”)
  3. Intra-personal Intelligence (“Self Smart”)
  4. Linguistic Intelligence (“Word Smart”)
  5. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (“Number/ Reasoning Smart”)
  6. Musical Intelligence (“Musical Smart”)
  7. Naturalist Intelligence (“Nature Smart”)
  8. Spatial Intelligence (“Picture Smart”)

You can begin to appreciate the value of applying a variety of participatory tools to solicit input from your participants.  Clearly and factually, not all of them will respond effectively to a strictly “verbal” environment.  Thus it is critically important to interview your participants in advance.  How else will you understand them and the method that may best serve them?  As we say in FAST class, there is no “silver bullet” to be an effective facilitator.  If you don’t show up prepared, your performance will likely be sub optimal.

Once we understand our participants better, and can improve the selection of tools that we choose to use in our meetings and workshops, effective facilitation relies heavily on active listening.  When conflict develops, people frequently do not listen to the other person or side of the story.  The facilitator’s role becomes indispensable to provide reflection on what is being said, because more participants will listen to the facilitator.  Don’t forget to confirm however, that you got it right.

Or write, as in, capture the reflection in writing.  If you capture the participants’ primary thoughts (frequently referred to as a causal link as in “I think that . . .”) in writing, such as a large Post-It® on an easel, it becomes easier to have them reflect on what was written down or captured.  Your participants can then confirm the accuracy or offer up corrections or additions as appropriate.

When providing feedback and reflection, scan the room and observe reactions, typically non-verbal.  Determine if it appears that the group understands and perhaps agrees, or if there is resistance —perhaps due to misinterpretation or misunderstanding that you can help clear up through active listening.

Let us know what you think by commenting below. For additional methodology and team-based meeting support for your change initiative, refer to “Change or Die, a Business Process Improvement Manual” for much of the support you might need.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

How to Communicate Meeting and Workshop Results

Guardian of Change (Communications Plan)


The Guardian of Change is better known as a Communications Plan.

Communications Plan

Empirical research shows that it is best to guard and protect communications than to simply shout out.  Different audiences need different parts of the message, and may react differently to descriptive terms used and the media used to communicate results.

The overall purpose is to get a group to agree on how it will communicate the results of its meeting and workshop efforts to others.  Students with study groups average a GPA that is 0.50 points higher than students without groups.  Why?  Socialization.


At minimum, team members need an “elevator speech” that can deliver an effective synopsis of the meeting results.  At the other extreme, if the meeting is strategic, there could be numerous audience types such as the investment community, suppliers, trade personnel, etc.  If so, identify the key audience members before discussing the message, medium of communication, and frequency of communication for each.

When it is important that it sounds like the participants attended the same meeting together, consider agreeing on the rhetoric used to describe the meeting.  Typically, the two major audiences are:

  1. What do we tell our bosses or superiors ?
  2. What do we tell people dependent  on our results (ie, stakeholders) ?


After identifying the target audiences, ask for each, “What are we going to tell _____?”  List the messages as bullet points that begin to homogenize (ie, create consistency) the meeting participants’ descriptions in the hallway about what was accomplished.

If necessary, discuss HOW TO communicate with the target audience such as face-to-face, email, etc.  For complicated communications plans, further discuss frequency or how often to set-up regular communications.  It may be necessary to schedule the communications so that the superiors are informed before other stakeholders.  Failing to plan suggests planning to fail. Meeting participants will use separate methods and discrete rhetoric that may generate different understanding among stakeholders who are expected to share similar understanding.

Proactively consider a 3*30 Report, a written summary of results that should take no longer than 30 minutes to write and no longer than three minutes to read and reply.  The 3*30 Report may be ideal for executives and other team members who are interested but not fully invested.

Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody. For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MGRush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI).


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