Communication Lessons from an Ancient Roman god

Obviously, communication is important to business and much has been written about this topic. In spite of the attention it has received, communication still tends to be an area that is regularly identified as the source of challenges in the workplace and business interactions with clients. Ineffective communication can result in hostile short and long-term interpersonal relationships, poor business production and inappropriate expectation setting with clients.

Whether in written or verbal form, all conversations, team meetings, client meetings, legal agreements or contracts use terminology to communicate concepts to others. Several clues to effective communication can be found in taking a closer look at two words, “Terminology” and “Communicate.”

The word “Terminology” is derived from two words, Latin Terminus (Boundary) and Greek Logia (Word or Concept). Terminus was the ancient god of boundaries or limits. In ancient Rome, Terminus was worshipped as the god who ruled over land boundaries and the exactness of measurements. Both beginnings and endings were believed to be ruled by this deity. Our modern Airport “Terminals” are also derived from this concept and mark beginnings and endings.

In those days, stone markers were erected at the exact place of boundaries and often would include a bust of the god Terminus with the Latin inscription Concedo Nullu meaning “yield no ground”. Every February 23rd was the celebration of Terminalia when land owners on both sides of the markers would sacrifice a lamb or pig and drench boundary markers in blood, honey and wine. In fact, the Roman Diocletian is believed to have initiated his persecution of Christianity in 303 AD on February 23rd to enlist the help of Terminus in order “to put a limit to the progress of Christianity.”

So what does this have to do with communication? Simply put, “terms” and “terminology” define boundaries of a discussion, legal agreement, plan, strategy or project. Words will clarify the beginning and ending of any communication so that a context and scope is established. When communicating, it is important to clearly define terms used and to be sure that both parties understand the limits of the topic. Specifying the when, where, who, how and why of any topic can eliminate confusion on what is communicated.

The word “Communicate” is derived from words that basically mean to “convey something that is common.” The idea is that when words or symbols whose meaning is common to both parties are used, an idea can be successfully conveyed. If you were trapped in a land where you did not know the language of the native people, how would you communicate? You might resort to using a hand to open mouth gesture if you wanted to say you are hungry and wish to eat. This action is common to all people regardless of race, location or language. That which is common to both allows communication to happen.

From this, several keys to communicating effectively can be identified:

  1. Define the context – Use terminology or words to accurately set the boundaries or limits of the discussion/topic. Open ended discussions leave room for miscommunication. Verify this with others by having them tell it back to you.
  2. Establish common understanding – When communicating always use words or symbols that both parties understand in the same way. Do not assume that terms used mean the same thing to your client or audience.
  3. Summarize your communications – Look for validating feedback from your audience. For example, following up a recently concluded meeting with an email containing bullet points can help solidify the scope and meaning of the communication.

In summary, you don’t have to have a Masters in Communication studies to communicate. Use clearly defined terms to set limits and expectations and make sure that all parties have a common understanding.

Oh, By the way, when using terms to communicate, blood sacrifices with honey and wine are optional.

Thomas Strouse