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:
- When It Really Counts, Be Positive
- When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one.
We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal
meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
- Bemused Detachment
- Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our
responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing
comity by slowing down.
- Some Truths About Lies: IV
- Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception.
Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: II
- Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use
are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive
- Anticipate Counter-Communication
- Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided
by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.
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.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
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.