Clarity is the name of the game

Everybody uses jargon. Families have their own specific words and phrases that they use when together, often without realising it until an outsider looks puzzled. Workplaces have their own shorthand, even making acronyms from jargon, an extra layer for those not in the know to learn. And every profession has it’s own jargon, mine being no exception.

Jargon can be used in several ways. It can be a useful clarification, providing common meaning in an efficient way, one word being used rather than several. It can point to specifics, minimising mis-communication and maximising understanding. But that only works if all participants in the interaction are privy to the jargon and fully understand it’s meaning within the context of said interaction. Those outside of this inner circle may take a stab at guessing the meaning, and suffer the consequences if they guess wrong, or may remain completely baffled. In fact jargon can be used specifically to exclude others, to shut them out, to prevent connection and to belittle outsiders. I find this a particularly insidious manipulation of language.

But jargon can also be used as a mask. It can mask insecurity. Using technical terms and industry/profession specific terms can be used to hide the fact that the user is feeling vulnerable or insecure. To speak fluently using technical language can be a potential shortcut to acceptance. But equally, it can be used to mask inexperience or lack of knowledge. Learning some jargon to throw into a conversation is not an uncommon strategy for those wishing to appear more knowledgeable than they are, such as those just starting out in a new profession.

Throughout my career, my goal has been to simplify complicated exercises and clarify theories and research. I use as little jargon as possible, though occasionally I have found that words I did not think of as jargon, were just that. ‘Everyday’ words whose meanings I perceive as entirely transparent and understandable to all are not: recall, retrieve and reward being three of them. Only by observing, listening and talking with clients did I discover my mistake. And it was my mistake, not theirs. Why should they know what I mean by those words? My job as teacher, trainer, coach is to make learning easy, not put up additional barriers to learning. Being able to explain what you are trying to communicate in layman’s terms is to truly understand the concept and practice of what you are teaching. I was lucky to learn this very early on. I recall on one training course being given metal puzzles to solve. You know the kind, they are often interlocking metal shapes and you have to work out how to unlink them or remove a rope ring from the metal without cutting it. The course task was not just to solve the puzzle by unlinking the shapes, but to figure out how to relink them again. Learning how to understand the problem from both sides is what would demonstrate complete understanding of the process of solving the puzzle and so I would then be able to teach another person how to do the same. If I just got lucky and unlinked the shapes without knowing how I’d done it, I wouldn’t be able to teach somebody else the solution. This simple exercise – well, not so simple, some of those puzzles are evil! – has always stayed with me. Deep understanding combined with clear explanations is at the core of what I do. If I don’t understand how a dog training method works, I can’t effectively pass the information on to my students. Yes, I might get a high hit rate by guessing, but I might not. And just guessing which method might work best with each dog is time consuming and potentially frustrating for all concerned. The addition of jargon to teaching only adds confusion.

Clear language, effective and appropriate methodology, and written reminders of how to achieve the desired results are, in my experience, key to good trainer-student communication. (Same goes if the student is a dog – but without the notes!) What students do not need are Venn diagrams, reinforcement schedules, e.g. ‘reduce the reinforcement ratios’ rather than ‘give fewer treats’ and a series of made up names for exercises that give students no chance of remembering and, because they are made up, no chance of Googling even if they had the time and the desire. I kid you not, I have seen all of these given to clients in their ‘homework’ notes! The result is confusion, not clarity. Despite the trainers’ best intentions, for whatever reason, they had fallen into the jargon trap.

Teaching is not about dumbing down our language, it is about elevating it so that everyone can understand what we mean. When I first started writing handout sheets and notes, I’d ask my very patient mum to read them. She likes dogs, but had no interest or experience in dog training or behaviour. By asking her as a lay person to read my notes, I learned what was jargon and what was understandable. This worked so well that my mum learned lots of about dogs and became the go to person in her office if they had a doggy problem (don’t worry, she knew her limits and I got lots of referrals.) To me, that was the ultimate thumbs up. My message was clear, the methods I described could be replicated and the reason to use them, or not, were understood.

So let’s make sure we all ditch the jargon and embrace inclusivity and effective communication.

Note: I originally posted this on my old website on 10th February 2020

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