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:
- When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel
that our contribution has "plopped." We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct.
What is going on?
- More Indicators of Scopemonging
- Scope creep — the tendency of some projects to expand their goals — is usually an unintended
consequence of well-intentioned choices. But sometimes, it's part of a hidden agenda that some use to
overcome budgetary and political obstacles.
- Worst Practices
- We hear a lot about best practices, but hardly anybody talks about worst practices. So as a public service,
here are some of the best worst practices.
- Stonewalling: II
- Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction. Some less sophisticated tactics rely on misrepresentation to
gum up the works. Those that employ bureaucratic methods are more devious. What can you do about stonewalling?
- Bottlenecks: II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization
to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- 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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