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:
- Snares at Work
- Stuck in uncomfortable situations, we tend to think of ourselves as trapped. But sometimes it is our
own actions that keep us stuck. Understanding how these traps work is the first step to learning how
to deal with them.
- More Stuff and Nonsense
- Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture.
These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help.
Here are some examples.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of
the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- Meets Expectations
- Many performance management systems include ratings such as "meets expectations," "exceeds
expectations," and "needs improvement." Many find the "meets" rating demoralizing.
- Congruent Decision Making: II
- Decision makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that
don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- 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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