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.

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