Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 24;   June 12, 2019: I Don't Understand: I

I Don't Understand: I

by

When someone makes a statement or offers an explanation that's unclear or ambiguous, there are risks associated with asking for clarification. The risks can seem so terrifying that we decide not to ask. What keeps us from seeking clarification?
A question mark

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 subterfuge
fully 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.

Not good.

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.

Next time we'll examine tactics.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: I Don't Understand: II  Next Issue

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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