In their simplest form, paradoxes are self-contradictory statements. For example: "This statement is false." If the statement is false, then it must be true. And if it's true, then it must be false. But we also apply the term paradox to situations that seem to contain inherent contradictions. When our actions cause effects that contradict our intentions, we might view those effects as paradoxical.
An example is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which describes our tendency to confuse confidence with competence. Because incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it, the incompetent have a greater tendency to interpret confidence as evidence of competence. And they interpret behavior that seems tentative or halting as evidence of incompetence. Thus, speakers who are unaware of their own confusion might seem confident, and therefore competent, when, in fact, they're clueless. Speakers who are aware of their own limitations might seem tentative — and therefore less competent — when, in fact, their tentativeness might actually arise from greater awareness of the full complexity of the issue at hand.
The effects are most dramatic for spoken communication, when we can observe pace and rhythm, but they're also observable in written communication, in construction and vocabulary.
In conversation, people who have command of the subject at hand sometimes exercise great care in what they say, so as to reduce the chance of being misinterpreted. That cautiousness can reduce the pace of their speech, and make its rhythm uneven. To listeners, cautiousness can appear to indicate incompetence relative to the subject at hand, or perhaps even dishonesty. When this happens, careful word choice produces the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of reducing the chance of misinterpretation, it actually invites listeners to misinterpret what the speaker is saying. That's one form of the paradox of carefully chosen words.
In that Choosing your words carefully
can unintentionally create an
impression of incompetence
and even deceitfulnesssame conversation, people who lack command of the subject, or who care little about the veracity of their statements, can produce contributions to the conversation with ease and fluency. To listeners, ease and fluency can appear to indicate confidence, competence, and credibility, even when these speakers might actually be relatively less than knowledgeable at best — or worse, dishonest. That's the second form of the paradox of carefully chosen words.
People tend to interpret a cautious, tentative, and thoughtful demeanor as an indicator of incompetence and/or dishonesty, rather than the mastery and scrupulous care that can be its actual source. And they tend to interpret a glib, relaxed, and easy demeanor as an indicator of mastery and honesty, rather than the ignorance and overconfidence that can be its actual source. And here's the really bad news: some speakers might cynically exploit this paradox. They affect a glib, relaxed, and easy demeanor as a way to fool us. Don't be fooled. Top Next Issue
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For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Wishful Significance: II," Point Lookout for December 23, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; and "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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