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Distinguishing “Distinction”

Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC   ©1995, 2012
Another article in the ADD Coaching Skills Series

Thanks to artist Phillip Martin!

Coaches are in the Wisdom business. It is our job to share with clients the language and awarenesses they need to get what they want. One of the ways to share wisdom is to do something called “drawing distinctions.”

Distinctions are just a fancy way of saying that we give the client the proper language for what they really want to say, be or do.
~ Thomas J. Leonard

Shifting your come-from

The primary goal of any kind of Coaching is to facilitate client “shifts” in attitude and awareness that will allow them to avoid what Einstein (or Narcotics Anonymous) referred to as insanity: repeating the same thing, expecting a different result. 

Nowhere is shifting a more important concept than in coaching relationships with clients who struggle with atypical Executive Functioning.

What’s a Shift?

A shift — sometimes referred to as a paradigm shift — is a reframe, a change in perspective that expands thinking. It is an instantaneous “get out of the box free” card that changes how you view all areas of your life impacted by the shift.

By virtue of your new vantage point, your relationship to whatever problems or challenges you are currently facing is suddenly redesigned.


Distinguishing (drawing distinctions) is a coaching tool used to facilitate shifts —  a coaching skill that articulates the differences between words as they apply functionally

When we distinguish one word from another, we bring to conscious awareness the reality that, while the denotation of two words – the surface, dictionary meaning – might be effectively equivalent, the connotations are quite different.

Connotation – which refers to subtext and common usage within sub-groups – rides along with that denotative (dictionary) meaning, whether or not we intend the additional “spin,” or whether or not we are consciously aware of it.

A Distinction, as it applies to a coaching relationship,  is a psycho-spriritual subtlety of language, consciously used for the express purpose of facilitating psychological and spiritual growth.

Set in Cement or Carved in Sand?

Many shifts are once-in-a-lifetime shifts.  Once we’ve made them, life never looks quite the same again.  Other shifts are more ephemeral in nature — one minute we have an entirely new awareness, and the next minute we can hardly remember what it was!

In the several decades that I have been coaching and training, I have observed that the lack of ability to hold on to new “awarenesses” happens most often when a key distinction to anchor the shift is missing.

My intention with this article, beyond introducing the basics of the concept, is to underscore the importance of distinctions. Let’s start with a quick review of terms.

Defining our Terms

A “distinction” is a concept in language that includes both the connotative and denotative differences between two or more words or concepts — in a manner that transends the literal.

A “collapsed distinction” is a term used to describe the usage of use of two words with similar meanings as if they were functional equivalents, when in fact they are not.

Collapsed distinctions are at the root of a great many of our problems — both as human beings and as ADDers.  They are especially tricky in the productivity and activation arenas, or when working on tasks designed to help us manage our energy within time’s boundaries. Distinguishing “un-collapses” them.

A Few Language Basics for Background

“Language” is a word used by English speakers to refer to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication.

  • Linguistics refers to the scientific study of language structure and meaning.
  • Semantics is a more specific term referring to the study of the relationship between words and their meaning.
  • Pragmatics, another branch of linguistics, focuses on how language affects mood and consciousness, specifically in the ways in which context contributes to meaning.

Are you with me so far?  Great!  

Before we explore distinctions and distinguishing (the process of employing distinctions), we need to go over a few more definitions.

Below is copyrighted content I initially developed for my comprehensive ADD Coach Training curriculum – the one that started it all – which I delivered through my original company (content formerly unavailable to anyone who was not enrolled in that particular training, not currently available.)

Shameless plug & cry for help: for anyone who loves words as much as I do, stay tuned early next year for an announcement of the availability of “version 1.0” of my upcoming ADD Coaching Glossary, with an alphabetical listing of the definitions and explanations of several hundred of the most commonly used coaching and ADD coaching terms and techniques.  Use the E-me form to contact me with interest in helping me refine it — link to my contact form always available from the rightmost position on the top, darker, menubar.

Definition of Terms from the OFI Manual

Since coaching employs language in an unusually intentional manner, coaching vocabulary often uses terminology in a slightly different manner than in the more common, everyday usage of some of the words and terms.

For example, we use the word language itself as both a noun and a verb, and add specific coaching usage to existing definitions to underscore the specifics of intentionality of coaching communications and coaching skills.

Language: the description of our ability to communicate with our clients utilizing human speech; all of the words and ways of combining them of a particular culture: the vocabulary of a particular group or profession, including the particular words and phrases of the professional ADD Coaching community.

To Language (the verb):  HOW one communicates what one intends to convey, including connotation, denotation, subtext and metamessages.

  • Denotation: the explicit (“literal”) – primarily conscious – meaning associated with a word or a phrase (often refered to as “the dictionary meaning”)
  • Connotation:  the additional – primarily unconscious – information associated with a word or a phrase — a function of societal usage as well as the particular experiences of the sender or receiver of a communication.

The connotation of a word or a phrase often communicates (“carries”) an emotional valence or produces an emotional reaction (“charge”) because it activates linkage to associated thoughts and concepts, frequently below the level of conscious awareness.

Connotation is sometimes referred to as the implication of a particular communication, although “implication” infers an implicit understanding of the intent of the unexpressed that is fundamentally different from the associative linkage of “connotation.”

  • Subtext:  the underlying information carried by a communication in addition to its wording; frequently communicated through tone of voice, facial expression, body language, or by the particular combination of words in which a communication is languaged.
  • Metamessage:  the over-riding communication intent of a specific way of languaging.

Languaging:  the process of using the tool of language in an intentional manner to achieve specific communication goals to move clients closer to stated coaching goals.

Some of the components of languaging underscore the intent of the tool, such as, for example:

  1. Increasing awareness
  2. Increasing affinity
  3. Shifting focus
  4. Accelerating growth

Now let’s skip forward to distinguish the concept of distinguishing, one of the most effective tools in a coach’s tool-chest.


  • Distinguishing vs defining
  • Distinguishing vs explaining
  • Distinguishing vs advising
  • Distinguishing vs deliberating
  • Distinguishing vs deciding

Distinguishing is used in the coaching world as a tool to facilitate psychological and spiritual growth, allowing for the differences between words as they apply functionally to be brought to consciousness through an articulation of one term in contrast to another.

Distinctions intentionally employ the psycho-spriritual subtleties of language to, as we say, “move the coaching conversation forward,” benefitting both client and coach.

  • Drawing distinctions sharpens listening, languaging and other coaching skills.
  • Distinctions themselves facilitate the formation of vital neurological connections to information (brain-links) in a manner that expands one’s knowledge base exponentially — rather than the linear, step-by-step fashion we tend to employ otherwise.

Distinguishing is a brain-game that helps to create and strengthen positive-minded neural-net — creating new connections and initiating the process of weakening the bonds of “old tapes” so that we can shape new futures.

In addition to the manner in which most coaches work with distinctions, comprehensively trained, brain-based ADD coaches are trained to remain alert to the way in which the process of affecting thoughts and emotions improves or undercuts cognition and intentionality of functioninga product of effective executive functioning.

My goal, when I post a distinction and let my brain loose to blog about it, is to encourage all of us to stop and think, re-examining conclusions and opinions, as we explore and possibly reframe underlying assumptions.

Drawing a Distinction vs Discussing Semantics

Since a distinction is a linguistic concept that describes the examination of both the connotative and denotative differences between two or more words or concepts, it results in language that quickly and clearly separates the underlying differences in meaning, avoiding longer semantic discussions.

The convention used as “distinction shorthand” is a pair of words or terms separated by “vs”
(NOTE that this format is not used to indicate or imply that there is a contest, or that the terms are in opposition to each other – as with “Coke™ vs. Pepsi™” or “FooFighter vs. TheSlammer” or “Roe v. Wade.”)

  • Coach vs Consultant
  • Therapist vs Psychoanalyst
  • Coaching vs Therapy
  • To language vs to communicate

Some ADD Coaching Differences

When used in a coaching session, many “vanilla” coaches (coaches whose practices are unflavored by Attentional Spectrum Dysregulations and Disorders) have been trained to place the term they are hoping the client will embrace first – frequently languaged as the most “powerful” of the terms.

  • Succeed vs win
  • Respond vs react
  • Request vs demand

Attempting to avoid making a long article endless, for now I simply want to point out some very basic differences:

1) ADD Coaches do not necessarily follow that particular “ranking” convention,
for a variety of linguistic and brain-based reasons.

2) ADD Coaches DO use most (not all) of the distinctions from the vanilla coaching field

3) ADD Coaches also employ ADD/EFD-specific distinctions that are especially important for our particular clients

4) Since many ADD/EFD Coaches are members of the ADD/EFD community,
our conventions are designed to keep BOTH coach and client on-track in a powerful and
effective (brain-based) manner – which permeates our coaching style as well as our

Putting it all together

  • Whenever we distinguish terms and concepts, we illuminate the subtleties of meaning in a fashion that includes both the dictionary meaning (denotative meaning) as well as the additional underlying meanings that have come to be associated with the word (connotative meaning).
  • Distinguishing utilizes the subtleties of word usage to underscore the differences between terms as they apply functionally, making the unconscious shades of gray available for examination
  • The more nuanced awareness necessary to distinguish one particular term from similar terms initiates a shift in consciousness, resulting in intellectual and emotional growth.
  • Distinguishing hones functioning because of the way in which it refines how we think about things, which changes our approach to action and to life itself.

When we distinguish one particular item from another we bring to consciousness the probability that we are using two terms with similar denotative (dictionary) meanings as if they are functional equivalents, unconsciously “collapsing” the denotative meaning of one with the connotative meanings of the other.

So what’s the BIG DEAL about that?

The quick answer is this:  Your subconscious is ALWAYS listening, and it is literal beyond belief!

When you use any particular word, all of your cognitive links to it come along for the ride, whether you invite them to join you or not.

So, for example, if you haven’t consciously distinguished “can’t” from “won’t,” the intractability of won’t slides on over to infect can’t, which makes turning can’t into CAN ten times harder than it needs to be.

Same thing with “eager” and “anxious — as in, “I’m so anxious for the class to start!”

If you were excited and eager to begin with, then subsequently (seemingly “out of nowhere”) became aware that you were second-guessing the wisdom of your enrollment or havng doubts about your ability,  you have a good example of unconscious anxiety linkage infecting your emotions — simply because of the word you used as a “functional equivalent”.

Pay Attention to Paying Attention

As you work with distinctions, make sure you keep a notebook handy to record subtle shifts, as well as your aha!s  and ho-hums.  They are ALL clues to Sherlock. They can be used to improve intentionality as they help illuminate underlying stoppers that translate to lack of activation.

I’ll bet you a month’s coaching fees that you will not
remember many of them if you don’t write them down.

The ones you are most likely to forget are those ephemeral shifts.  You can’t work on the distinctions that are keeping you stuck if you don’t explore them — and you can’t explore them if you don’t remember them!

(c) Some of the wording above comes directly from The TimeSteps™ WorkBook, which I am developing as a tool to bring the way we customarily deal with time to consciousness, so that we have additional choices more in keeping with how we would like to deal with it.

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If you’d like some one-on-one (or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this article (either for your own life, that of a loved one, or as coaching skills development), click the E-me link  <—here (or on the menubar at the top of every page) and I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

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For links to still more: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links (subtle, so they don’t distract you) will turn dark red; AND check out the links to Related Content in each of the articles below

BY THE WAY: I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

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