Someone has just made a statement that seems unclear, incomplete, or ambiguous. Their manner suggests that from their perspective, the statement is clear, complete, and unambiguous, and they're about to go on to the next thing. What do we do? Do we abruptly interject with, "Hold on there podner, not so fast." Or do we politely ask, "Excuse me, please, I'm confused." Or do we nod knowingly as if we understand? Or do nothing? There are many options.
There are also risks. If you don't understand at the moment, and you don't reveal the fact that you don't understand, and people later find out that you didn't understand and still don't understand, they might conclude that you're a bumbling fool. Worse, they might realize that you've been intentionally covering your confusion for a while. Some people will interpret that as misleading or dishonest.
If the thing you didn't understand (call it "A") is in wide use in subsequent conversation (about items I'll call "B", "C", and "D"), you'll probably be confused about B, C, and D, too, especially if you need to understand A to understand B, C, and D. Then, when people find out that you didn't understand A, they might realize that you couldn't possibly have understood B, C, and D. Their frustration about having to explain the whole thing again can express itself as disrespect for you or anger toward you.
Failing to If you don't understand something,
and you conceal your confusion,
people might distrust you when
they finally learn of your subterfugefully grasp A is like taking on a debt. Whatever happens after that corresponds to the interest charges on that debt. The interest charges include the confusion about B, C, and D; being regarded by others as having been dishonest; having to go back and clear up the confusion about B, C, and D; and the loss of trust. And once you take on such a debt, you might never be trusted again, because your "credit report" has a bad mark on it. If that happens, your simple nods of agreement might be met with open skepticism.
Choosing not to seek clarification can be a viable option if you believe that you'll be able to clarify it on your own in short order, either by native intelligence, or context, or Google, or a trusted colleague, or some other means. The risk is that clarifying it yourself will take so long that intervening conversations will create more trouble.
Let's begin in this Part I by examining the sources of any reluctance to seek immediate clarification of something we don't understand. We'll use that insight next time to find tactics for seeking clarification more safely and for defining circumstances for using those tactics.
Here are three common sources of reluctance to ask for clarification.
- Damage to your image or self-image
- With respect to concerns about your own image or self-image, there are at least two sources of reluctance to seek clarification. They involve reluctance to reveal your own ignorance or confusion, and reluctance to reveal that you've forgotten something important.
- Although revealing such things can be costly and painful, these options can be less costly and less painful than the alternatives. If so, forthrightness is a better option. Make the choice consciously.
- Fear of personal criticism
- In the context of seeking clarification, personal criticism is any overt negative commentary about your abilities or talents, based on your having sought clarification of the ambiguous or incomplete statement of another. In most cases I've witnessed, such behavior in a group is counter-effective and destructive of relationships within that group. Moreover, it can deter others from seeking clarifications, which can be harmful to the group's output quality.
- Because a pattern of criticizing people for seeking clarification is likely a performance issue, only supervisors can do much about it. If fear of personal criticism is based in the reality of the situation, it's unlikely to be the only problem you face. It can be an indicator that it's time to move on.
- Fear of offending the other party
- Some anticipate a risk of giving offense by seeking clarification of a statement made by someone who believes they've spoken clearly and unambiguously. The risk is real.
- Multiple factors can contribute to the seriousness of the risk. For example, the risk of seeking clarification from someone increases with the difference in organizational rank. Past behavior can also be an indicator. If the person has appeared to be offended by past attempts to seek clarification, we must assess the risk of offense as elevated.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- The Costs of Threats
- Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats
to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships,
and create an atmosphere of fear.
- Conflicts of Interest in Reporting
- Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts.
Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading
and unreliable reports.
- Telephonic Deceptions: I
- People have been deceiving each other at work since the invention of work. Nowadays, with telephones
ever-present, telephonic deceptions are becoming more creative. Here's Part I of a handy guide for telephonic
- Staying in Abilene
- A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort
that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens
when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
- Columbo Tactics: II
- This is Part II of a series showing how the less powerful can adapt the tactics of TV detective Lt.
Columbo when they're interacting with the more powerful.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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.