Meaning is what’s in here, not what’s out there

When we (Visual Meaning) interview leaders to find out what they want visualised, we apply a fairly rational process to how we structure the content.  What we’ve found though is that we can usually tell what needs to be in the picture as much from the interviewee’s expression and body language as from the words they use.  This is how you tell what’s most important to them.  You know this for yourself – you can watch a conversation across a coffee shop, hear none of the words yet know when someone is saying something that really matters to them, because they lean forward, gesticulate, become more animated.

This is all very obvious, but here’s the thing.  Nine times out of ten, when we hit on something that a leader really really cares about, not only does their body language shift, but their language also becomes a lot less abstract.  Often with senior execs we have to work hard with our questions to break their ideas down into terms people will relate to.  But when the leader gets onto something they really care about, they don’t need our help, because they’re doing it naturally for themselves, volunteering examples, anecdotes, illustrations, metaphors.

They don’t just have greater significance, they have greater signification.  They are more meaningful, and because they’re meaningful to them, they want them to be meaningful to us as well.

Meaning is not a disembodied, ethereal concept – it’s a real, embodied, identifiable sensation – the sensation of feeling “I get it” and “I care” at the same time.  The feeling of connecting what you are seeing / hearing / thinking to concepts and experiences that are important to you.

This is not immediately obvious because we tend to describe it as something “out there” – “what is the meaning of that word?”, “how do we create more meaning at work?”, “that was a very meaningful thing you said” and so on.  These all imply that meaning resides in things and situations outside and apart from ourselves, whereas it’s really a product of our brains making sense of the world. Actually, the meaning cannot exist without us to make it, so when we understand something we don’t just “make” meaning, we feel it.

Can you see why this is so important?  If we just focus on the symbols (words, pictures, diagrams etc.) that we describe as “conveying” meaning, we only get half the picture, because meaning is something that is felt, not something that exists out there in the world.  It is the energy that drives us to make sense of the things we care about, and care about the things that make sense.  And once we learn to recognise it in ourselves, we can recognise it in other people, and harness that energy to make things happen in our organisations.

Is this a sensation you are familiar with at work?  Do you recognise it in those around you?  And if not, is it because people genuinely don’t care, or is it just because they don’t get what’s going on?

One thought on “Meaning is what’s in here, not what’s out there

  1. Thanks for the article and the graphics. When people reach a stage of shared meaning and begin to focus on actions good things can happen. In this world we need to figure ways to bring more people together and reach shared meaning so we can generate actions that solve the many problems identified in the United Nations 17 Global Sustainability goals.

    Finding ways to attract people to a discussion, create shared meaning, then innovate actions is the challenge.

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