Warren fumed, "Now hold it. I might be getting on, but I'm not losing my mind. Last week you claimed you could have them both by October," he said, referring to the emergency meeting where they'd agreed on the plan for Marigold.
Suddenly, Rita understood. "Ah," she began, "You asked, 'if we extend till October, could we finish the A list?' and I said yes. Then later you asked, 'If we extend till October, could we get the XP revisions?' And I said yes. But I thought you wanted budget and schedule for both scenarios separately, not both together. Now I understand."
Warren held his ground. "That's right, and that's what you're going to do, because that's what you agreed to."
Rita has just been reminded of how dangerous it can be to answer hypothetical questions in conversation. In the project context, perhaps the most common form is "If <some set of conditions>, can you achieve <some set of goals>?" There are other forms too, but we'll deal with this one.
Answering these hypotheticals in conversation is often dangerous. Although it's probably safe enough to respond to hypotheticals in writing, conversational responses often lead to the Hypothetical Trap.
In meetings or other conversation, the only safe answers are either "No, I don't think so," or "Hmm, I'll get back to you." Here are some reasons why answering more concretely is risky.
- I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore
- By definition, Answering hypotheticals
is often dangerousthe hypothetical conditions don't exist now, and they might be outside your experience. Answering a question outside your experience is always tricky.
- Questions are usually ambiguous
- Even a carefully framed question is just a sketch — it doesn't completely describe a real situation. Your answer is necessarily based on some assumptions, which might differ from the questioner's assumptions.
- Contingencies rarely stick
- People remember your answers much better than they remember the question's contingencies or any conditions you placed on your answers. For instance, if you answer "Yes" to "If we gave you a million two and another seven months, could you do it?" people remember the "Yes" better than they remember the "million two" or the "seven months."
- Incompatible combinations
- If you're asked two hypotheticals with two sets of assumptions, and you give two answers, people might remember your answers as if they were the answers to a single question, even if the contingencies are incompatible. This is what happened to Rita.
- Nonlinear superposition
- If you said that you could do A for $A in M months, and B for $B in M months, you might be required to achieve both A and B for $A + $B (or less!) in M months, even though the world doesn't work that way.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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- When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning
to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?
- When We Need a Little Help
- Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex
politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes
hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
- Changing the Subject: I
- Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of
the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary,
devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope
- How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
- We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem,
and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem
we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.
- Meeting Troubles: Culture
- Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside
our awareness. Here are some examples.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.