Building a Common Language

Creating a common language when working across sectors and industries

Even when we’re speaking the same language and working within the same company or organisation, team members in different departments may use completely different terminology and jargon that’s difficult to understand. And when it comes to cross cultural and cross-sector collaborations – things can get even more complicated. This module looks at how we can co-create a common language when working across sectors and industries.

Key Takeaways

  • Creating a common or shared language is critical to the success of a cross-sector collaboration.
  • Jargon, lexicon and terminology used by other teams, departments, sectors and industries can cause confusion and misunderstanding.
  • Partners need to agree on and co-create a shared language for the success of a project or partnership.

Video Tutorials

The Need for a Common, Shared Language

Multi-stakeholder partnerships are effective because of the diverse backgrounds and experience of the collaborators. When unexpected or unconventional partners share resources and pool their knowledge and expertise, this can lead to a so-called ‘multiplier effect’. By sharing resources, good practices and information, people and organisations can help make a difference to many others.

But the diversity of people involved in cross-sector projects also represents a challenge when trying to make sure everyone is on the same page. When partners are not in sync, and not communicating clearly, sometimes it can feel like we’re speaking a foreign language.

Think about it:

What are some of the words that are often confusing to you that other sectors tend to use? Have you ever sat in a meeting with colleagues from a different department and found terminology confusing?

Sriven Naidu writes in this article about the importance of “codeswitching for collaboration and harnessing the potential of diversity,” and also seeking to understand the motivations of those from other sectors.

Creating a common language for use in multi-stakeholder partnerships enables us to work better together with those from other sectors. A common, shared language that reduces misunderstandings and the need for translation is critical to the success of a collaboration.

Are We Speaking The Same Language?

Let’s look at some very common and seemingly easy-to-understand terms that might actually be problematic when collaborating across sectors and industries:

  • Long-term – what does long-term mean? Does this mean one quarter, or one financial year? One election cycle? Or 10-20 years? For partners from different sectors it can mean very different things, and they can have very different expectations of project timelines.
  • Profit – a no-brainer for those from the corporate sector, might not be as obvious for those collaborating from the public and people sectors.
  • State – in an interview with Professor Fitzgibbons, she shared with us how she was speaking to science students using the word ‘State’ (meaning a government or a country) and she didn’t think she needed to define it, but the students thought it meant something very different.
  • BoP - depending on your sector you might assume this means Base of the Pyramid (NGO - also known as Bottom of the Pyramid to confuse things further), Balance of Power (government), or Balance of Payments (private sector).
  • Sector - this term can mean different things to different people. For the private sector, it means industries. For non-profit sector or government departments, it usually means thematic areas such as health, education, livelihoods, HIV and AIDS.

And that’s before you get into the specific terms and language used around different issues or within thematic areas: e.g. WASH or Water, Sanitation and Hygiene to use an acronym specific to that issue.

  • Hardware and software – these mean something very different when talking about water and sanitation – i.e. equipment/ infrastructure, and behaviour change – compared to say the tech industry.

Partnership Building Language

We need to build a lexicon and terminology that works for all partners involved in a collaboration. In the table below, are examples of terms that can be difficult for some people to understand. And on the right-hand side are some options for partnership building alternatives – terms that might cause less confusion.

However, the language you use for your partnership needs to work for all of the partners involved. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to finding or building a common language.

Things to remember about building a common language for partnerships:

  • The job of the communicator is to help the other party understand. If you use technical terms, don’t blame your listener if they don’t understand you.
  • When teams and partners speak the same language, they are much more likely to be united in their approach to their business/project regardless of where they are.
  • Partners can create a common language, including jargon, as long as they agree together, and all can understand. It’s about ensuring everyone is on the same page.
  • Avoid any ambiguity – be as specific as possible.
  • Ensuring clarity will minimise confusion, ease tension and uncertainty, strengthen ties, and promote a more unified, supportive team/partnership.

How to Build a Common Language

Creating a common or shared language is critical to the success of a collaboration. “Real understanding occurs when the parties are ‘on the same page’. This is particularly important when people come from different disciplines or backgrounds. Shared language takes time and effort to develop and nurture.”

How to build a common language:

  • Reduce slang
  • Avoid acronyms
  • An intermediary to act as translator
  • Define any technical terms (if you need to use them)
  • Create a glossary if necessary
  • Ensure your common language is understood by all of those involved
  • Have a clear communication plan
  • Theory of Change can be a useful process.

Two of the tools that you can use to develop a shared language for your team and stakeholders are:

  1. Theory of Change – this can be a useful process for creating a common language for your partnership or collective action. Working through a Theory of Change can allow all partners to create a common understanding of the strategies, and hence the common language to be used within the group.
  2. Developing a Communications Plan for your collaboration. The communication plan should include clear, agreed messaging – and developing this should be a co-creation process that involves all relevant stakeholders.

And another tool can be using a visual language, and developing imagery that is agreed upon by all partners.

How We Created a Common Language for Our Hub

A common language is also crucial to the success of a network, alliance or hub. When Asia P3 Hub was getting started, we got together to look at our communication strategy and developed common language together, including short and succinct talking points.

Our core team were all different ages, different generations, and different nationalities, with different working backgrounds. The core team had worked across business, NGO/ not-for-profits, and we have a tech entrepreneur. We’ve had a very hands-on, real experience with building a common language.

How can we communicate in a way that we can be understood by one another to move forward? Sometimes it’s a matter of saying, “what do you mean by that?” or “I don’t understand,” because how one person uses a word is different from how someone else might receive it. And it’s also important to remember that language choices underpin inclusivity.

When working in cross-cultural, cross-sector, and even cross-functional teams within an organisation, creating a common or shared language is critical to the success of a collaboration.


  1. List the top 10 words that are technical or specific in nature that you use frequently at work.
  2. Circle those that could be difficult to understand for partners from other organisations and sectors.
  3. In the context of a partnership, brainstorm with a partner or friend other words or phrases you could use to make it easier for them to understand what you mean.
  4. In addition, think about these terms: capacity building, modality, project and program. What do they mean to you? What could someone from a different sector understand them to mean?


Here are some key resources on Developing a Common Language. Our downloadable Hub-in-a-Box guide also includes useful and relevant tools. And we’ve compiled additional tools and resources, that Asia P3 Hub has found the most useful in its journey so far on the resources section of the Asia P3 Hub website.