Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 29;   July 15, 2020:

Disjoint Concept Vocabularies

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In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties have too little in common.
A dictionary

A dictionary. This dictionary lists words. The equivalent function for concept vocabularies is often called a glossary. One tip for uncovering the contents of a concept vocabulary for a field of knowledge other than your own is to search for glossaries related to that field.

A personal vocabulary is the set of words we understand, use, or both use and understand. We can provide definitions easily for the words we're most familiar with, and for the rest, we can provide definitions with varying degrees of struggle. A broad vocabulary gives us tools for expressing complex ideas simply, clearly, and with elegance. It enables us to distinguish similar ideas that differ in subtle ways.

Vocabulary is the basis of expressive power. With a diverse vocabulary comes the ability to transfer our thoughts to others, when those others are open to receiving them.

A concept vocabulary is a like a verbal vocabulary, but it's an extension of verbal vocabulary to the vast world of concepts. For example, a concept vocabulary for the causes of diseases in humans might include malnutrition, toxins, bacteria, viruses, radiation, prions, and undoubtedly much more. Finding methods for preventing diseases would be difficult without these concepts.

When parties work to resolve disputes or solve problems together, they each bring to the exchange their own personal and professional concept vocabularies. The portions of their concept vocabularies that are relevant to the exchange are those that pertain to the domain of the problem they're solving.

But difficulties can arise when the parties' respective concept vocabularies are disjoint — when the overlap of the concept vocabularies of the parties is narrow. For example, a proposed solution might seem clear and workable to one party. But if it's expressed in terms of concepts that aren't in the concept vocabulary of the other party, agreement and unified action will likely remain out of reach.

One method for addressing this problem is particularly ineffective. We might call it "Inflicting Education." In the Inflicting Education approach, Party A tries to explain to Party B some concepts that A feels B doesn't understand. In response, B does likewise to A.

In this dance, both parties focus on clarifying to each other what each one already knows. A more effective approach might be for each to try to express their views in terms of the concept vocabulary of the other. But that can be difficult if their respective grasps of each other's concept vocabularies are limited.

That's why it's useful to have tools for expanding the overlap between respective concept vocabularies of people and groups that are engaged in joint problem solving. What follows is the start of such a toolkit.

Expand your concept vocabulary by assimilation
Learn what you can of your partner's concept vocabulary. That might be difficult if you're on your own, but fortunately, people who are in the mode of Inflicting Education are very willing to provide whatever information you require.
A systematic A concept vocabulary for a field
of knowledge is the set of
concepts that practitioners
use to solve problems in
that field of knowledge
approach can be very helpful. Recognize that some items in your partner's concept vocabulary are also in your own, albeit under different names. And some items in one concept vocabulary have no equivalent in the other. Finding items in your partner's concept vocabulary that have no equivalent in your own can be especially helpful.
Expand your concept vocabulary by compounding
Compounding is the process of combining two or more concepts to make a new one. For example, if a concept vocabulary contains the concepts ice and sculpture, compounding them produces the concept ice sculpture.
Probably both parties will have already harvested any valuable compound concepts from within their own respective concept vocabularies. But compounds involving concepts from both vocabularies can be entirely new. For example, software testers have a concept known as exploratory testing. Marketers have a concept they call Test Marketing. Software testers and Marketers could therefore have a potentially fertile exchange of ideas to determine what each might learn from the other by seeking answers to the question, "What is exploratory test marketing?"
Identify misconceptions
Some elements of anyone's concept vocabulary might be misconceptions. They might be inaccurate, confused, or otherwise muddled. We might expect the incidence of misconceptions to be elevated when we're incorporating into our own vocabulary concepts from a vocabulary other than our own.
A useful exercise for a problem-solving group might be called Concept Exchange. Each party, in turn, offers a concept form its own concept vocabulary, along with its definition. Frequently, terminology might be familiar, but their definitions might not be. The main benefit of exercises like this is uncovering misconceptions.
A less direct method of exchanging concepts is to acquire a glossary for the fields of knowledge of your problem-solving partners. Then ask them to enlighten you about any concepts you found in that glossary, and which might be especially relevant to the issue at hand. If their understanding differs from what you found in the glossary, a misconception might be the cause. Oh, if you do this, be prepared to accept questions about your own concept vocabulary.

Finally, gather concept vocabularies from the fields of those with whom you regularly collaborate. Because these fields are those of greatest importance to you, these collections from other concept vocabularies are the concepts most relevant to your own work. Notice how many concepts have aliases in different vocabularies. When you find a concept in one vocabulary look for its analogs in other vocabularies.

By building expertise in multiple concept vocabularies, you enhance your ability to contribute to joint multidisciplinary problem-solving efforts. It's interesting, fun, and rewarding. Go to top Top  Next issue: Red Flags: I  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
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In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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