When asked a question such as "Is that correct?" some of us embark on paths that create trouble in our working relationships. For example, suppose Jan knows that the premise isn't correct, because she knows of at least one counterexample — call it X. Instead of responding, "No, it isn't correct, because of X," she begins forming a mental catalog of all possible counterexamples. If Jan receives the query in conversation, she pauses while she assembles her response. If she receives the query in email, she takes a day or two to do research.
That's why it takes Jan longer to respond than the person who asked the question expects. Often, people interpret these delays as shiftiness, evasiveness, or secretiveness. They might see her as being careful in her words, or plotting, or scheming, or taking time to manufacture lies or misleading responses, or lacking in confidence.
Questioners who fairly evaluate her responses are much less likely to make these erroneous conclusions. But some questioners don't want the complete responses Jan always delivers. Questioners who ask, "Is that correct" sometimes don't want a full catalog of the reasons why it isn't correct, and they ignore it when she delivers it. Their preferences thus lead them to misunderstand what takes Jan so long to respond.
By over-delivering, some people, like Jan, convey the impression of being untrustworthy, scheming, reluctant, or incompetent.
To avoid this problem, apply a general principle:
When asked for an opinion or judgment, and the request doesn't specify a need for a complete or absolutely reliable response, a partial and estimated response — delivered right now — might suffice. If you're unsure, deliver the short answer, then ask.
- Is this possible?
- If you know one reason why it's impossible, that might be enough. Offer it and ask if more are needed.
- Can you do it by Friday?
- One reason why you can't might be enough.
- Why is that so?
- If you know one possible explanation, provide it, acknowledging that it isn't 100% certain or complete.
- Who do you think can do this?
- This is a question about capability, not availability. A complete list might not be required.
- Can we do this for under $X?
- This just requires a By over-delivering, some people
convey the impression of being
reluctant, or incompetentyes-or-no answer. Yes can require significant research. No can be very easy.
- Who told you that? Or: Where did you hear that?
- A complete list isn't required. It might not be necessary to provide the date on which you were told, or the order in which various people told you.
- Would any changes be required to meet that requirement?
- If you know of one, then the answer is yes. You don't necessarily need to devise a complete, priority-ranked or cost-ranked list of all changes that would be required.
And I don't think I need to supply any more examples. You get the idea. Top Next Issue
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!
See "How to Create Distrust," Point Lookout for May 18, 2011, for a catalog of other behaviors that erode trust.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Interviewing the Willing: Tactics
- When we need information from each other, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose
critical facts. Here are some tactics for eliciting information from the willing.
- Dismissive Gestures: I
- Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated,
we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a
catalog of nonverbal insults.
- I Don't Understand: I
- When someone makes a statement or offers an explanation that's unclear or ambiguous, there are risks
associated with asking for clarification. The risks can seem so terrifying that we decide not to ask.
What keeps us from seeking clarification?
- Barriers to Accepting Truth: II
- When we work to resolve differences of opinion at work, we often depend on informing each other of what
we believe to be real facts. At times, to our surprise, our debate partners reject these offerings as
untrue, even when they're confirmed authoritatively. Why? And what can we do about it?
- They Don't Reply to My Email
- Ever have the experience of sending an email message to someone, asking for information or approval
or whatever, and then waiting for a response that comes only too late? Maybe your correspondent is an
evil loser, but maybe not. Maybe the problem is in your message.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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