Dan Pallotta wrote a post the other day on the Harvard Business Review blog called: I Don’t Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore. Dan laments that in more than 50% of business conversations he has no idea what the other person is saying. He used to think he was stupid when he couldn’t understand what someone was saying, but now he has changed his mind and shifted the blame to the other person for poor communication.
Dan identifies 4 different “strains of this epidemic” of poor communication.
1) Abstractions instead of concrete terms. “A new idea for a doorknob becomes ‘an innovation in residential access’.”
2) Acronyms that other people aren’t familiar with.
3) Long winded sentences with no content interspersed with plenty of “likes”, “ums”, “sort of’s”.
4) Meaningless Expressions like “Thinking outside the Box” and “Exceeding Customer Expectations”.
I agree with Dan that the responsibility for clear communication falls mostly on the Sender not the Receiver, which is also consistent with a central tenet of NLP, that says, “the meaning of a communication is the response it gets.” But I believe Dan is giving too big a pass to Receivers, and is missing a huge part of the equation: the Receiver’s inability to ask good questions and identify their own points of confusion.
This is actually a pretty serious deficiency that results in an enormous number of lost learning opportunities. The ability to ask good questions I would bet is one of the single biggest differences between “intelligent” and “ignorant” people. Most people have the fundamental mental capacity to become intelligent, but they fail to realize much of their potential because they never develop their ability to ask good questions.
Why don’t people ask good questions?
1) The biggest reason is probably that people are afraid of looking stupid.
It’s amazing how much this fear, and the fear of failure inhibits people from being successful and fulfilled in their life. Almost any successful person, in business, athletics or science, has found a way to overcome their fear of failure and fear of looking stupid. To learn, improve and eventually make a big impact you have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes.
One of the reasons people find the fear of looking stupid so gut wrenching is because they identify way too strongly with their current competency, lifestyle and past life decisions. When people tie their identity to their past and present, any fault or deficiency that other people point out can emotionally destroy them because they have to interpret their deficiency as, “something is wrong with me that I cannot change.”
Usually people are able to stop just short of having to make that statement to themselves by using some sort of defense mechanism: yelling, vilifying, fighting, running away etc, because it is this type of negative explanatory style, with the use of global, permanent statements that end up making people seriously depressed and suicidal. Almost everyone has experienced one of these ego-defensive mechanisms kicking in, even if they aren’t consciously aware of what they are defending or why. Rather than continuing to put themselves in these ego destroying situations, people end up just developing an experiential avoidance to ever putting themselves out there, in order to avoid their fear of failure or looking stupid. As a result, they “play it safe” their whole life, unaware of the subconscious mental script that confines them to zones of mediocrity.
How then does one get out of the trap, where being successful and making progress requires risking failure, but failing creates a depressive ego destroying tailspin?
I don’t want to go into too much more detail on this pervasive psychological roadblock right now, but I will offer one mental trick to resolve this dilemma. Although it is simple in theory, it is difficult in practice. (I discuss related psychological concepts in much more detail in the 3 posts I wrote on mental health in September).
The key is a subtle change in how you relate to your ego and identity. If you can stop tying yourself to your present competency and instead tie most of your sense of identity to your potential, what you can achieve in the future and who you can become, than you can free yourself from the bonds that are created by trying to protect the deficiencies in your present identity.
2) Overcoming the fear of looking stupid is a necessary but not sufficient for being able to ask good questions. Asking good questions is a skill that takes time and practice to develop with specific trainable components.
The basis of asking good questions is being able to clearly identity what you understand and what you don’t. To do this isn’t easy, and requires a considerable amount of self-awareness and mindfulness. (This is probably yet another area where a meditation practice is able to increase performance). When you read or listen to a sentence and get confused, there are particular concepts that trip you up. Since most people are either afraid of looking stupid or unable to identify what confused them, they will just smile and nod instead of alerting the Sender to their confusion. As a result, a huge portion of everything said thereafter goes over their head, and they don’t get any value from the conversation, because concepts they didn’t understand were either referenced multiple times or used as foundational components for new concepts. And then both people’s time are wasted.
In my opinion, just bumbling “I don’t have any idea what you just said to me”, as Dan Pallotta advocates, is a tremendous resignation of conversational responsibility. The listener has an obligation to identify their points of confusion. However, I’m not saying the blame then falls solely on the listener either. Conversational dynamics aren’t so black and white and we should, in general, avoid swinging from one extreme to another. So let’s a dive a bit deeper…
Dan does do a good job of enumerating some of the most common ways people confuse their listeners: Abstractions, Acronyms, Fillers, and Meaningless Phrases, but is wrong to imply each of these maladies are equally bad. Fillers and Meaningless Phrases should probably be eradicated as a general principle; they create negative conversational value in almost all instances, but the misuse of Abstractions and Acronyms is a bit more nuanced.
The Value of Abstractions
Abstractions and Acronyms are not inherently bad. The blogosphere is in the middle of a long love affair with simplicity, but the world is complex, and undeniably increasing in complexity. Therefore, we actually need dense, specialized terms to be able to communicate more complex ideas, lest the time it takes to communicate expand exponentially. Furthermore, I’m afraid the simplicity movement is giving people justification for avoiding learning complex terms and this is literally robbing people of developing greater intellect. Ever greater abstractions enable us to perceive the world with more granularity and precision. Instead of just seeing a collection of dots, I can perceive higher level patterns like lines, shapes and derivatives. Or in more everyday terminology, instead of seeing a collection of people I can perceive communities, cultures and societies. As a result, I can think and talk about the interaction between societies, which would be impossible if I only had the language to talk about individual people. My point here is to stress that we shouldn’t avoid abstractions, as Dan and many others regularly suggest. Conversational mastery entails learning how to move fluidly up and down layers of abstraction and being able to pick the right concept for the context of the present moment.
However, problems are created when we use abstractions that other people don’t understand, because this creates confusion and miscommunication almost 100% of the time. When this happens the Sender deserves a significant portion of conversational blame.
But why does this happen? Why do people use abstractions that other people don’t understand?
A) The most forgivable error is when people use concepts the other person doesn’t understand because they inappropriately assumed the other person possessed the same knowledge and background.
B) Sometimes people will use concepts other people don’t understand because it makes them feel superior that they know something the other person doesn’t. They lord their expertise over others with a smug smile.
C) But probably the most common reason for the offense is that people don’t understand themselves the concepts they are using. They don’t really understand what they are trying to describe, so they hide in the altitude of abstractions because it gives the appearance they said something meaningful or intelligent.
But as I said, all the blame does not fall with the Sender. If someone uses an acronym you don’t understand, ask them what it stands for. If someone uses an abstraction you don’t understand, like an “innovation in residential access”, ask them what they mean by that, ask them to explain it in a different way, or ask them to give a more concrete example, in which case they would tell you that they were trying to describe “a doorknob”. If you challenge them you’ll either find out that they were either full of shit or just were unable to simplify their expertise. In both cases, you learn something valuable. (It is worth noting the same dynamics apply for reading written content. If you read a sentence that you don’t understand, don’t keep going! Figure out what words or concepts are tripping you up, and use a dictionary, google or a friend to resolve your confusion).
When both sender and receiver have attained conversational mastery they have robust error correcting conversational methodologies to make sure miscommunication doesn’t happen. This process happens to be fairly similar to the error reduction methods Claude Shannon invented that ended up forming the foundation of information theory and enabled digital technology to transmit information without errors. Shannon’s key idea was to add extra information and redundancy to make sure all the information was properly communicated. Perhaps there is a corollary here for conversational theory that could form the foundation for a revolution as big as the digital technology revolution. Human miscommunication, after all is a pretty big deal. It is at the root of most major personal and societal conflicts, from broken marriages to wars. But humans evolve and adapt slowly, so if there were any implications here, it would be for when machines start communicating with each other in natural human language, which is closer than you think. Hello, Siri. Hello, Internet of Things.
I may have just used an abstraction you didn’t understand, so let me give you a concrete example of what I mean by “conversational error correction methods” *smug smile* *kidding*
Primary sender error correction method: After the Sender talks they can ask questions to the Receiver to check the listener’s comprehension. “Did that make sense to you?” “Did you get what I meant by error correction method?” “Can you repeat back to me what you think I just said?”
Primary receiver error correction method: The listener can ask good questions that identify specifically what they didn’t understand, and ask the Sender to reiterate or elaborate on that point. “No, can you reiterate what you meant by error correction method?” “Explain to me again, how you connected the idea about Claude Shannon’s error correction methods to Conversational Theory?”
Bottom Line: Conversation is the primary way ideas are created and transferred in today’s society and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and strive to develop conversational mastery, instead of letting our eyes glaze over when people say things we don’t understand or uttering simpleton phrases like “I have no idea what you just said to me.”