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:
- Troublesome Terminology
- The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the
most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
- Masked Messages
- Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them
into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they
are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
- How to Misunderstand Somebody Else
- Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even
more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand.
Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: II
- Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned,
rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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