The Two Precursors to Meaning

Don’t you hate it when you’re having a conversation with someone, and suddenly you realize that you’re on totally different wavelengths? Let’s say we’re discussing your upcoming change management project, and you have been explaining the framework that will be needed to increase your warehouse’s production output. How would you feel if I respond with a completely unrelated topic: “Frameworks are incredibly useful! Which method do you prefer: the ADKAR, SWOT, or PESTEL?”

(In case you aren’t familiar, the Prosci® ADKAR model uses 5 outcomes for change management success: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement®. SWOT stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” and is useful for quickly identifying an organization’s biggest challenges and areas for growth. And PESTEL stands for “Political, Economic, Socio-Cultural, Technological, Environmental, and Legal/Ethical”; it’s used to identify dangers from external factors).

If your “framework” is in reference to a wall hanging system, and mine is in reference to risk management theories, then we would eventually hit a “wait-a-minute” point in our conversation. The words might make sense, but the meaning wouldn’t match.

What are we talking about?

One of my college professors, Dr. Michael Vanlaningham, shared a phrase to teach us how to interpret texts:

“Context and usage determine meaning.”

In a previous post, I explained the benefits of creating an organization-specific dictionary. A dictionary allows us to Reason by clarifying the appropriate spelling and pronunciation, explains how concepts are Related, and establishes Rules for which words to use, and in what order.

But choosing which words to use isn’t enough. We also have to make sure they make sense. That’s where Context, Usage, and Meaning come in.

Here’s how you can increase the meaning in your communication:

  1. Establish the Context

Once you know which words to use, take a look around. Get to know the circumstances that precede or follow the delivery of those words. You might notice frustration in a one-word email response, discontent at staff meetings from a lack of interest, or emotional disconnect with an employee whom you’ve overlooked in the past.

Every type of communication—spoken, written, symbols, body language—is influenced by the events which lead up to and follow the actual delivery. Body language is an important part of communication. Although we now know that non-verbal communication isn’t quite “93% of ALL communication,” the physical context of a situation can still provide a lot of information.

Context can also include the literary and textual elements, historical background, and cultural framework. What are the current economic, social, or environmental factors that could be influencing this person’s message?

We must also examine emotional and social cues. The Japanese use a term called “reading the air” to describe the process of recognizing a situation non-verbally. Valeria Mecozzi of THNK School of Creative Leadership explains this well in her article Communicating Across Cultures, referencing Erin Meyer’s work.

Questions to ask when determining Context:

  • What is going on during the time period in which this was/is said?
  • Who is the author or messenger?
  • Who else is involved, and what is the interplay between all parties?
  • What main point is the author trying to make?
  • What is implied by this phrase?
  • What should happen next?


  1. Understand the Usage

This is the customary manner in which a word or phrase is spoken or written. The way in which something is said can make a huge difference.

Consider the difference between a panda that “eats shoots and leaves” or one that “eats, shoots, and leaves.” Author and journalist Lynne Truss wrote a great book on usage called “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”

Usage includes these components:

  • grammar (the way sentences are constructed)
  • morphology (word formation patterns such as pitch or tone inflection, composition, or adjusting the tense)
  • syntax (use of grammatical rules in forming a sentence), and
  • style (forms of expression rather than only the content)

Questions to ask when determining Usage:

  • How was the information delivered?
  • What kinds of words were used?
  • Was it delivered in person or electronically?
  • How did the person sound and act when they delivered the information?
  • What are the unspoken “rules” about this statement?
  • Is a response expressly or tacitly implied? Is the response optional or required?


  1. Clarify the Meaning

Once we know the Context and Usage, we can begin to understand the significance of a message as the sender intended.

In the business world, one of the most essential skills for good communication is the ability to accept feedback gracefully. Communication is “an exchange of words, sounds, symbols, or gestures”; but it only succeeds when we know the recipient has received and understood the intended meaning. This happens in what I call a healthy feedback loop—a system where new input is collected and validated, and acted upon with a conscious effort to respect the sender, both at the beginning of the process and after an adjustment is made.

When this happens, the sender’s (customer’s or employee’s) feedback creates long-lasting significance because the recipient (business leaders) adjust their processes AND let the sender know what was changed.

Questions to recognize Meaning:

  • “Here’s what I heard you say. Is that correct?”
  • “From my perspective, we have 3 choices, agreed?”
  • “Let me summarize my understanding of what we just discussed.”
  • “At this point, our next step should be this. Do you agree?”
  • “What more can we do to make sure you are satisfied with our service?”
  • “How can we serve you better?”


The process of developing Strategic Risk Intelligence in your organization begins by considering and defining the terms that matter to you. Once you’ve done that, you can “read the air” of Context (surrounding events), understand Usage (how words are spoken), and have a better handle on what Meaning (intended understanding) others want to convey.

A comprehensive dictionary and proper use of Context, Usage, and Meaning will put you well on your way to begin construction of your Strategic Risk Framework. I’ll be describing the Building Blocks of Risk in my next posts.


Are you looking for help in reversing toxicity at your workplace? Find out more here.


Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.

Find more at, or connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @lacontestrategy.


Grace LaConte is a profitability expert, writer, and speaker. She is the founder of LaConte Consulting, which provides business owners with practical ways to improve their company's profit, growth, and value. Grace also shares her thoughts about marketing strategies and the dangers of predatory tactics used by MLM (multi-level marketing), which you can find at She is based near Houston, Texas.

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