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.
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:
- Encourage Truth Telling
- Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant
reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports
truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
- Email Ethics
- Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new
technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil
the society. And so it is with email.
- When Stress Strikes
- Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But
when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes
in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
- Asking Clarifying Questions
- In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder
ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
- Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous.
But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection
of their techniques.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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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.