Shared Meaning

Effective communication is based on many principles, and one particular principle is shared meaning.  How often do we simply nod our heads in agreement, without fully and deeply listening to what someone is really saying?  We nod our heads while we are forming our response in our minds while the other person is still speaking.  The late Steven Covey (2004) urged the need for empathetic listening saying, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (p. 239).  This notion of nodding in agreement with our heads when other people are still speaking is connected with the blog post of The Potential Tyranny of Generalities, because that nod, or that verbal agreement of “right, yeah, okay, etc.” is sometimes based on the generalized idea of what the person may be saying.  Yet, how often have we then replied from our generalized notion only to find out that we in fact were not listening carefully because of the new distinction or clarification the person made that somehow eluded our conscious awareness?  I am tempted to say that this happens fairly often, but we are good at deleting those memories.  Now what does listening carefully have to do with shared meaning?  If we are not carefully listening to others, do we really know what they mean?  What happens in organizations when deep listening is not valued?  What happens in our relationships when we do not listen intently – I am sure husbands can relate.  I know from experience that it usually does not work out so well.

Now this is not a one sided story where only those who are not carefully listening are at fault.  What about the communicator, what if they are speaking ambiguously, or not repeating important points, or clarifying what certain words mean, or rephrasing the main themes?  This points to the systemic nature of life, and in particular – communication.  Both the speaker and the listener must be able to be sensitive enough to each other by gauging and reading the context they find themselves in.

How do we listen more intently and mindfully?  How can we communicate more effectively?  How can we better generate shared meaning?


“The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing”

~ Steven Covey


Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York, NY: Free Press.


7 thoughts on “Shared Meaning

  1. I can defintely relate to the point you make in your post. I am guilty of nodding agreement without really listening to what someone is saying. I hear them but I am not really listening. Often it begins with a point they make at the beginning of their message. I graple onto that first point and formulate my response to that single point, when they are moving on to point two, three, etc. While I may have an excellent rebutle to point one, I have missed more than two-thirds of the message.

    • Hi Jeremy, I too am guilty of this from time to time – yet awareness is often the first step to change within any setting, that is, becoming aware of what is not working. From there we can make mindful and diligent effort to alter our own behavior. Especially, if we see this issue of not listening as an important step towards better interpersonal relationships, and if it aligns with our personal values and ideal of integrity. Changing and reinventing ourselves is a conscious effort that often requires consistency if we are to break through old patterns that are at times self-serving, mediocre, and aligned with our comfort zones. Let’s be real, if our lives are “basically efficient” – why would someone even want to change to higher levels of congruency and integrity? To where they feel inside themselves, “I must change?” Instead of, “I should change?” What has to happen for people to get to that point?

  2. How do you define “meaning” in this context? Does it signify shared understanding and significance? If so, how to people with different value systems – and different beliefs about what is significant–share meaning?

    • Hi Dr. Salmons, thank you for the questions because it is important to define and make proper distinctions within the framework of communicating, and communicating about communication. First, in terms of defining “meaning” – meaning arises from the content and context of what one notices and the previous associations or categorizations they generate from the content and context. Shared meaning on the other hand, is a sharing a common frame of reference (content and context) via communication (verbal and nonverbal). Additionally, “meaning” in the context I am describing is not so much about the theory of meaning, as opposed to the everyday “practice of meaning” as it emerges from the conversations we find ourselves in. So yes, meaning does signify understanding and significance, and it also means listening with the “intention of understanding” to what people are saying when they are communicating, especially in a dialogue or group setting. This requires a certain degree of self-mastery in order to be present and absorb what someone is saying. Meaning itself, is often self-evident and comes from the particular context and shared space people finds themselves in. However, the thrust of “shared meaning” in this post is that we are not fully present in some (not all, but some) of our conversations and because of this we hear a few key words, then form associations and categorizations of what that means from “our” frame of reference instead of being present and listening intently inside of “their” current understanding – only to find out that we have missed the point or only have a small facet of what was shared.

      Our systems and culture here in the U.S. supports and rewards efficiency in our relationships, but speed in relationships often hinders interpersonal trust, whereas speed and efficiency in tasks can be useful. Imagine, if we had a business venture together and I was not psychologically present, what would you think? Then translate this into our significant relationships with others…Thus, shared meaning in practice could then be defined as a significant understanding of what another person is saying from their viewpoint.

      How does this function if people have different value systems, and different beliefs about what is significant? Shared meaning is not shared agreement, but listening carefully often yields significant correlations and connections even between seeming differences. We may have different beliefs about what is significant, but that does not mean we cannot learn from each other, respect each other, and genuinely listen to each other [this can lead into another topic of in-group / out-group]. Since shared meaning is highly contextual it can be seen as a process of understanding. Does this mean even if we are fully present and listening with the intention of understanding we will generate shared meaning? No, but it does mean we are living more intentionally, and hopefully as a result the quality of our relationships will be strengthened, because our motives and intentions are positively oriented and focused upon the other person’s needs.

  3. Hi Ra, You are definitely on point about how we receive information. As I think i am listening; I am actually thinking and formulating thoughts without having received all of the information from the sender. I never really realized this before now. Interesting. Now I have some work to do on myself in this regard. Thanks.

    • Thank you Robert, I am glad I could be of service. It is amazing to think and reflect upon our lives this way, because if we are honest with ourselves I am sure this happens more than we care to admit. Social psychologists call this type of listening behavior “automaticity” in its a technical way sense, or auto pilot for short; and some have even gone so far to call it “zombie mode.” Ohhh zombies…. Just think, we go though life and in many of our conversations by the time someone says a few word we have already formed our conclusions about what they are talking about. Being a married man, I can attest – this type of thinking and responding is not good for my relationship – and I have been known to be guilty of this. However, if we find within ourselves a deep desire and motivation to be more, give more, grow more, and contribute more of ourselves – corrective action is possible, but we must first want it for ourselves. If you found this useful – I would appreciate if you would be willing to share the word with others.

      Take care Robert.

  4. Pingback: A Theory About Leadership & Life – Part 3 | Ra Talk

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