Call for «semantics» and save your team with a safeword

A situation that might happen in a meeting, during a brainstorm or in any other group discussion: You and colleagues or team mates get so immersed in details that you completely get off track and lose focus of the actual and real topic or goal you are talking about. Often you end up talking about HOW something has been said rather than WHAT has actually been said. If this happens you are getting lost in «semantics»!

«Semantics» deal with the meaning of phrases and words in a particular context. Ironically by trying to make sense, understand and create meaning you sometimes create confusion.

How to solve this?

In my current project team within the Hyper Island Digital Experience Design course we adopted a simple technique that apparently originated in bondage and sadism and masochism and put it to practice: A SAFEWORD! Due to its meaning and the irony behind it our safeword is «semantics».

…whenever we get lost in discussions and lose focus we «call for semantics»!

So whenever we get lost in discussions and lose focus we «call for semantics»! This method is intended to have everyone stop, take a step back, reflect and help remind each other of the bigger picture, goal or actual content. In our team this system has often helped us to get back on track and regain focus.

Be aware though that using this technique also comes with its risks and pitfalls:

  • If used inconsiously or too extensively it might interrupt or shut down valuable discussions.
  • In teams that do not work well together or do not have a proper team culture in place, calling the safeword might cause conflict.
  • If people do not understand the meaning or do not agree on its use the safeword is useless.
Safeword poster in our team corner at Hyper Island

In our team we talked about and agreed on its use. We have even added a gamification aspect by giving out points to team individuals whenever someone «calls semantics». Thus «calling semantics» often causes a good laugh, which supports team dynamics and fuels a healthy team culture. We haven’t decided whether the least or most points make you win though :-).

The safeword as a part of team culture

In order to avoid the pitfalls mentioned a working team and decent team culture are crucial. Creating a team culture is a topic by itself that I am not going to cover it this post. But there are some great reads on creating team culture all over the net and there are especially some good reads by some of my fellow students such as: