The Value of Shared Language in Successful Facilitation and Critique

By Traci Lepore

Published: April 1, 2013

“The lack of shared, common language … will eventually lead to what I call the spinning-in-circles syndrome.”

The trouble with language: you say po-tay-toe; I say po-tah-toe. But does it really matter?

I’m currently working on a project where our internal debate on the use of a particular term has caused multiple rehashes of the same argument. The system has always used one term, but recently, some of us have wanted to change it to a more user-friendly, industry-standard term that the users of the system are familiar with. When discussing the project, we often get confused because team members are using both terms interchangeably. Whenever that happens, the two sides in the argument bring up the discrepancies between the terms. The back and forth is a never-ending constant.

Recently, when I was watching American Idol, I became aggravated—not for the first time—when a contestant sang a classic song, then said, “I’d never heard this song before.” In this case, the song was Let It Be, by the Beatles! I wonder how someone could want to be a musician, but not think it would be worthwhile to become well versed in such well-known material? Jimmy Iovine had trouble getting through to the contestant with his feedback—not surprising because they shared no common ground to work from.

What do these two situations have in common? Both of these situations reflect the lack of shared, common language. The frustration, aggravation, and arguments that people expressed in both situations are symptoms that will eventually lead to what I call the spinning-in-circles syndrome.

The Spinning-in-Circles Syndrome

“The spinning-in-circles syndrome can slowly or quickly extinguish creative energy and forward momentum, so it requires your immediate attention and treatment.”

The spinning-in-circles syndrome can slowly or quickly extinguish creative energy and forward momentum, so it requires your immediate attention and treatment. How can you know whether your team is suffering from the spinning-in-circles syndrome? It’s actually pretty easy to diagnose, and I’m sure you’ll find the symptoms familiar. Some symptoms to watch out for include the following:

  • You’ve had the same conversation a number of times.
  • People’s emotions often become heightened during conversations because you think you’re talking about different things, but in reality, you’re talking about the same thing. I like to call this violent agreement. It usually takes a significant amount of time to realize that this is happening.
  • Your team lacks the ability to make a decision or keeps going back and forth on a decision.
  • Your team fails to successfully execute changes that are based on others’ critiques, resulting in numerous, unnecessary iterations of a design.

Any one of these symptoms can cause the spinning-in-circles syndrome on its own. If your team starts experiencing several of these symptoms together, you’ll really need to call a doctor! Otherwise, you’ll eventually be spinning so fast, you’ll burn up in smoke.

If your team is suffering from the spinning-in-circles syndrome, you know how impossible it is to facilitate a conversation or provide or receive any constructive critique. This can be mentally and physically exhausting.

Instead of facilitating, you spend all your time playing referee or feeling like you’re talking to a brick wall. This could make anyone want to throw up his or her hands in defeat. Or worse, make or concede to bad decisions just to end the spinning.

No one wants this to happen, and it doesn’t have to. You can cure the spinning-in-circles syndrome.

Curing the Syndrome

“Allow only feedback that is couched in terms of your design principles. There should be no more ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like.’”

I have a handful of home remedies that I have found to be effective in curing the spinning-in-circles syndrome. These remedies might include the following:

  • Have a shared set of design principles by which your team evaluates all work.
    • Decide on and agree to follow these design principles as a group. This builds buy-in and ensures an agreed-upon vision.
    • Follow basic design best practices—including things like communicating the relationships between items, ensuring the scannability of a page, and using good typography. Also, add criteria relating to branding and market positioning.
    • Keep your design principles in sight at all times, but especially during any kind of critique or review.
    • Allow only feedback that is couched in terms of your design principles. There should be no more “I like” or “I don’t like.”
  • If you feel that violent agreement may be occurring, stop talking and start drawing. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Take arguments about taxonomy, visual design, and various methods of interaction out of the hands of the team—and instead put the issues into the hands of actual users. Getting answers from the mouths of those whose answers matter most is the best way to end such arguments.
    • Test prototypes, do card sorts, or conduct focus groups. Any kind of user research is better than remaining mired in internal arguments over things that users should decide.
  • Be sure to immerse yourself in the subject matter that is relevant to your project.
    • Share what you learn from this immersion with the other members of your team. Everyone has a different perspective and contributes to the knowledge of the whole team. You don’t have to and, in fact, can’t possibly know everything yourself.

These may seem like obvious answers, but it is all too easy to get caught up in the spinning of the moment and forget to employ these principles as you should. It’s good to remind yourselves of the basics occasionally. They create a foundation for successful collaboration.

The Value of Shared Language

“Curing the spinning-in-circles syndrome … can help you to develop shared language among the members of your team. Doing this is invaluable. It is the only path to innovation.”

Curing the spinning-in-circles syndrome doesn’t just provide relief from the frustration and the arguments. It can help you to develop shared language among the members of your team. Doing this is invaluable. It is the only path to innovation.

In my previous column, “The Holy Grail of Innovation: It Takes an Ensemble to Achieve Inspired Creativity,” I talked about the ability of improvisational actors to innovate and how much of that magic comes from an ensemble’s having done the work of developing shared language. My main point: there really is no secret to improvisation. With practice, anyone can learn the principles of improv, and any team has the potential to become a true ensemble.

But what kind of work does this entail? In my mind, there are three key conditions that must exist for a team to build shared language:

  1. Team members must share their individual context with others on the team.
  2. People should feel free to change their perspective if and when the interpretations of other team members move them.
  3. The team must allow the time and space to work things out.

Sharing context is just a way of getting to know each other. It is just as important to know your team members as it is to know your audience of users. Achieving this requires the people on a team to actually listen to others and understand the context and experiences that drive their value system. You don’t necessarily have to speak the same language; you just need to understand what another person’s language means.

It’s human nature that, if you spend time really listening to others and understand their contexts, this can influence and change your own context and perspective. And that’s actually a very good thing. You can learn a lot about how other people interpret language in this way. Then, the next time around, working with a new team, what you’ve learned can make it quicker and easier for you to begin building shared language with them.

Have you ever wondered why workshops last a fair amount of time? A good one lasts two or three days at least. This is because it takes time to develop shared language. If this is a goal, you need to allow the time and space for that to happen. To bring a team together, you’ll probably need to spend the first day just trying to feel each other out as you start to understand one another. Doing this may sound like a big commitment of time, but the efficiency with which the team will be able to work later on more than makes up for it.

So, Does Shared Language Matter?

“Don’t let arguments that spring from a lack of shared language drag your team down.”

Whatever you call it, the spinning-in-circles syndrome can hold your team back—keeping you from taking any steps forward, never mind innovative steps forward. Don’t let arguments that spring from a lack of shared language drag your team down. And don’t be that aggravating person who doesn’t spend the time that is necessary to understand the language of the world he’s trying to be a part of. Whether you say po-tay-toe or po-tah-toe, at least make sure that you all know you’re talking about a vegetable. If you do that, everything will work out in the end. And the answer is, yes, shared language does matter.

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