When asked a question such as "Is that correct?" some of us embark on paths that create trouble in our working relationships. For example, suppose Jan knows that the premise isn't correct, because she knows of at least one counterexample — call it X. Instead of responding, "No, it isn't correct, because of X," she begins forming a mental catalog of all possible counterexamples. If Jan receives the query in conversation, she pauses while she assembles her response. If she receives the query in email, she takes a day or two to do research.
That's why it takes Jan longer to respond than the person who asked the question expects. Often, people interpret these delays as shiftiness, evasiveness, or secretiveness. They might see her as being careful in her words, or plotting, or scheming, or taking time to manufacture lies or misleading responses, or lacking in confidence.
Questioners who fairly evaluate her responses are much less likely to make these erroneous conclusions. But some questioners don't want the complete responses Jan always delivers. Questioners who ask, "Is that correct" sometimes don't want a full catalog of the reasons why it isn't correct, and they ignore it when she delivers it. Their preferences thus lead them to misunderstand what takes Jan so long to respond.
By over-delivering, some people, like Jan, convey the impression of being untrustworthy, scheming, reluctant, or incompetent.
To avoid this problem, apply a general principle:
When asked for an opinion or judgment, and the request doesn't specify a need for a complete or absolutely reliable response, a partial and estimated response — delivered right now — might suffice. If you're unsure, deliver the short answer, then ask.
- Is this possible?
- If you know one reason why it's impossible, that might be enough. Offer it and ask if more are needed.
- Can you do it by Friday?
- One reason why you can't might be enough.
- Why is that so?
- If you know one possible explanation, provide it, acknowledging that it isn't 100% certain or complete.
- Who do you think can do this?
- This is a question about capability, not availability. A complete list might not be required.
- Can we do this for under $X?
- This just requires a By over-delivering, some people
convey the impression of being
reluctant, or incompetentyes-or-no answer. Yes can require significant research. No can be very easy.
- Who told you that? Or: Where did you hear that?
- A complete list isn't required. It might not be necessary to provide the date on which you were told, or the order in which various people told you.
- Would any changes be required to meet that requirement?
- If you know of one, then the answer is yes. You don't necessarily need to devise a complete, priority-ranked or cost-ranked list of all changes that would be required.
See "How to Create Distrust," Point Lookout for May 18, 2011, for a catalog of other behaviors that erode trust.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: II
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive
than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection.
Here are some of them.
- Achieving Goals: Inspiring Passion and Action
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- Changing the Subject: II
- Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or
assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
- When Stress Strikes
- Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But
when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes
in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
- Exasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
- Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being
in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
- From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
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