Thinking about the meanings of word can often lead to a better understanding of our view of the world and place in it. I don’t mean debating the meanings in the dictionary – I mean discovering which of two definitions you prefer and why. Self-knowledge can be increased by acknowledging linguistic preferences.
Language can be a complicated thing – particularly when it comes to those curious words that have multiple meanings. It’s not so much the existence of the meanings that intrigues me but the choices that people make. How a person chooses to use a particular word can tell you a great deal about who they are and how they see the world and their place in it. Take, for instance, the word ‘apprehension’. I’ve noticed that few people actually use the word – perhaps because of the complex of meanings that surround it – but, when it is used, it generally is deployed in description of a situation. Let’s start with three definitions:
- fearful expectation or anticipation: “the man looked around the dark alley with apprehension”
- understanding: the cognitive condition of someone who understands; “he has a solid understanding of the situation and its implications”
- the act of apprehending (especially apprehending a criminal): “the policeman on the beat got credit for the collar”
That is a wide range on meanings for one word. Now take a minute to reflect on the meaning which you attach to the word. It is probably a good idea to spend some time thinking this through. I am sure that your natural inclination is to opt for the meaning that has the highest positive loading. But, and here is the rub, the real question is how you face the world as you find it and which of the meanings tend to dominate your approach.
It will be easy to think of this exercise as a ‘word game’ – multiple choices with a single right answer. That’s not going to get to the nub of this. You see, your tendencies are at the core of how you see yourself and the world around you – and (this is the important part) how you see the people around you. Maybe three examples might help .
Coaching and Personal Growth I work with senior executives, entrepreneurs and members of boards. They tend to be very well educated and have a complex understanding of language – they are good at it and being good at it allows them to be successful. But it also presents traps that are hard to avoid and very difficult to escape from.
• Bob’s Story: A while back I had a coaching engagement with a CEO (let’s call him Bob) who is building his second business. Early on I noticed that he had a well-defined approach to major challenges – he avoided them as long as possible. When I first directed his attention to that habit, he reacted strongly and negatively to the suggestion. He was, after all, a leader and founder of two businesses.
The first evidence of his tendency came when he had to terminate a senior member of his team. The relationship had a considerable history but it was clear that this person was not producing. Bob avoided confronting the problem even as it caused more damage to the potential of his business and increased tensions among other members of the team. Our sessions got tenser until one day Bob exploded. The emotions came flooding out. “I can’t change the team. Think of all the bad things that might happen.” When I asked him to describe those ‘bad things’, he began to outline the likely reactions of the team member. “He might sue us or cause the company to fall apart.” Bob was apprehensive about making the change – the negatives of having to take the action were all he was seeing.
A while later we began to focus on a part of Bob’s personal life that was heading for a crisis. The behavior was much the same. He avoided making decisions – taking any action – until things approached the boiling point. I pointed out the similarity of the pattern. This time – and in the light of the other issue – he was far less dismissive. As he described his dilemma and tried to rationalize his approach to it, it became clear that he was again focused on the possible negative consequences of acting. Bob was taking the route of apprehension that lead to being apprehensive.
• Linda’s Story: Linda is CEO of a mid-market company. She has built a fine team that is producing at a very high level. Our sessions tended to be future focused. We talked about possibilities and probabilities. One of her strong points was the ability to grasp new and complex ideas and put them to work quickly. A second strength was an ability to see and understand what was going on around her and the people involved in the company.
Linda’s approach to those people was different from Bob’s. She spent a lot of time and effort working to understand what motivated them – but that understanding was seldom negative or limiting – and it never seemed to produce apprehension. She was driven by an essentially optimistic vision of the world and human potential. Challenge after challenge was met with the same optimism and determination. As a result, her team was very dedicated to the company and turnover was essentially zero.
But there is always a serpent in every Eden. For Linda, it was a tendency to overlook the negative and favor the positive estimates of every situation. As a result, the negatives were by and large ignored until they reached a crisis. When we boiled it all down, there was a similarity between Linda’s and Bob’s approach. His apprehension was driven by an appreciation of the risks that negatives brought to any situation. Her approach was driven by an aversion to thinking about the negatives.
• Larry’s Story: Larry is a young entrepreneur who has never successfully built a business. But he keeps on trying – he is now on his fourth try. I was asked to advise Larry by the investors in his current company. They were concerned that expected results were not being achieved and that the company had settled into a pattern and culture that seemed to limit its future prospects.
My first session with Larry surfaced a major problem – a tendency that seemed at the root of much of his behavior. He had graduated from a top-of-the-line business school – earned both a bachelors and masters degree from the same program. As if often the case with young entrepreneurs, he was certain that he knew much more than he actually did. This hubris had a tendency to surface in ‘gotcha’ reactions. Larry was fond of manipulating conversations until he could ‘spring the trap’. As are result, he ended up detonating relationships that might have proved important to the future of his company.
The company had gone through two almost complete turnovers of the senior team. Most had left quietly but two had made a bit of noise before departing. It was clear to me that, until Larry slaughtered his ‘gotcha’ daemon, nothing much positive would come out of the company.
I considered the situation so explosive that I scheduled a meeting with the investors. I outlined my findings. Two of the investors immediately agreed with me – they had had similar experiences with Larry. It was my recommendation that needed to be discussed carefully. As I saw it, there were only two options. The first was to confront Larry with his behavior and its effects on the business – and to stay with that confrontation until he changed. The second was to replace him as CEO. Neither were low-risk options. But the investors agreed that something had to be done – large amounts of capital were being frittered away while Larry played ‘cop on the beat’.
Three Stories – One Root Cause: Although each of these stories sounds different, the root cause was the same. Each behavior was driven by an aversion that rested on an apprehension of the first type. Bob could not focus on anything but the negatives. Linda saw the positives because she could not bring herself to acknowledge the negatives. And Larry saw the whole world in a negative light – they were all criminals waiting to be exposed by the ‘smart cop’. The idea of ‘fearful expectation or anticipation’ drove them all.
So What’s That Got to do with Me? We all tell ourselves stories about whom and how we are. For the most part, these stories cast us in positive light. What that light hides in the shadows is the point. The ‘of course, I am this way’ story is a human constant. But it is never the whole story.
Maybe this will help. How often – some time later – have you realized something important about an event or something someone was trying to tell you? My record is about thirty years. It took me all that time and lots of experiences to finally realize what a friend was working hard to help me understand. My tragedy was that he had died before the light went on – I never got to thank him. But in my ‘story’ – probably like yours – I always have “a solid understanding of the situation and its implications”.
Most of the time – and in spite of good intentions – we live out the first definition of apprehension. Every once in a while we manage to see a situation clearly and understand rather than fear its implications. With practice and dedication, we can improve that percentage. It is a matter of what the Buddhist call living in the present. Practice may not make perfect – but understanding is better than fear. For each of us, humanity hangs in the balance and, without that, we are just bumps in the road.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II