Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughtfully Say What You Mean

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell defined mitigated speech as “any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.” (page 194) It turns out that this is a very important idea. It affects us everyday and it can make a very big difference in our attempts to succeed.

In Outliers, Gladwell talks about commercial air accidents and traces the cause of many of them to mitigated speech. For example, it appears that rank, position and culture may play a serious role flying commercials airliners. It appears that when the Captain of the aircraft is not actually flying the plane but a secondary pilot is, there is a reduced chance of an accident. It is not experience as a pilot, but rather the willingness to speak out about situations which might contribute to a crash. The Captain is comfortable in giving an order, whereas the subordinate is nervous about speaking out. The pilot that is second in command may not want to over step his position and tends to mitigate his speech.

Political correctness may also fall into this category. Instead of saying what the situation appears to be the speaker may “downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.” In another very important area, interpersonal relationships, the same thing might happen.

Without clarity on the issues at hand, we are going to have a difficult time solving problems which will get in the way of our reaching our goals. Mitigated speech in a marriage, for example, might have a spouse making quiet suggestions in the background of everyday life. The person the suggestions were aimed at might not perceive them as being applicable or important. Later under stressful circumstances the spouse counting on mitigated speech to correct the situation may simply abandon anything approaching sugarcoating and both parties my find themselves in a full blown “war” of words. "You never listen to me. I've been trying to tell you for months. You just don't care."

Damage done to the interpersonal relationship will never be forgotten and it may cause the whole relationship to eventually collapse. Harmful confrontations might be avoided if we were to spend more time learning/practicing saying clearly and in a nonjudgmental way things that need to be said, rather than leaning on mitigated speech to solve the problem.

Things that may contribute to the dangerous use of mitigated speech may include: culture, position, sexual orientation, personal insecurity and a general lack of sustained open communication.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How Can They Know?

When you want something you ask for it. If the other person is willing you receive what you asked for. That seems simple enough. But, when we begin to look at what is happening all around us we realize that there is something very wrong with our communications.

On the personal level there seems to be a growing problem: it comes out something like this.

"You knew what I meant. You just didn't want to do it."

Since everything you know is inside your brain, and everything they know is inside their brain, how could you possibly "know" unless they told you? Herein lies the problem: none of us are taking the time to do the things that are necessary to understand each other. Some of these things are:
1) listen
2) check to see if what you heard is what they think they said
3) think about your position
4) choose your words and actions with care
5) deliver those words with as much care as possible to assure proper interpretation.

So much for the idea that clear and concise communication is simple. But, there are things that we can do that will improve our chances. Listen with care. Avoid doing and thinking about other things while the other person is attempting to communicate with you. That may mean that you have to find a place that is quiet with fewer distractions. One example, turn off your cell phone and put it out of sight.

Analyze what you think you have just heard. Consider it. Then put the content into your own words and ask something like this: "Would I be correct in assuming that you. . ." If they confirm that you seem to understand what they said begin to construct your response. That is not a normal human characteristic. Instead we usually think, "I know what you're going to say and I feel. . ." If you are lucky you are sometimes correct about the idea you think you're about to hear. If you are normal, you're wrong.

Once you have a handle on what they think they said and you have formed a response, choose your words and actions with care. Deliver those words with great care and watch for the response from the other person. If the reaction isn't what you expected, examine what they might have done with what you said and make immediate repairs.

I know what you're thinking and I might be right: this whole thing is very time consuming. Correct. Effective communication takes time. The idea that we can do it all in life is just plain wrong. We can only some it effectively. Slow down, listen, consider and then respond.