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May 28, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 22
 
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Exasperation Generators:
Opaque Metaphors

by

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?
A foxhunt in Virginia

A foxhunt in Virginia. Historically, foxhunts have been an activity of the wealthy. They're inherently expensive, because of the horses, hounds, and costumes, but they also require access rights to large tracts of countryside. Metaphors associated with activities of exclusive social groups are especially useful to those who wish to use them not to illuminate, but to obscure concepts.

Photo by Carol Highsmith, "Fox hunt in Virginia." Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Exasperation is annoyance that brings with it hopelessness and depletion — a sense that you can't tolerate any more of whatever that was, and you can't do anything to prevent the inevitable future repetitions. An exasperation generator is a behavior, concept, or situation that fairly reliably causes exasperation in many of the members of a group. Examples include condescension, bragging, initiatives announced by top management, software user guides, new policies adopted enterprise-wide, and procedures for appealing performance reviews.

Sometimes we can do something about exasperation generators that effectively inhibits them. If you can do something, do it. But if you truly are powerless to prevent recurrences, what then? Let's restrict ourselves to an exasperation generator common in meetings — opaque metaphors.

Metaphors often clarify. When asked why it will take two weeks to complete a task, someone might respond, "Well, it'll take us a week to bring the new consultant up to speed." Here, "up to speed" is a metaphor — we won't actually be accelerating the consultant. We mean only to brief or orient the consultant.

But metaphors can be opaque if they're poorly chosen or if they're expressed in arcane terms. In response to the same question about schedule, someone might say, "Well, it'll take us a week to find a hound that can follow the scent of a fox." Umm, OK, a hound and a fox. Oh, the speaker is saying that finding a capable consultant will take a week. The metaphor is opaque. It obstructs the explanation.

When a regular attendee of a meeting (I'll call him Oscar) frequently uses opaque metaphors, some listeners experience exasperation. If we can't ban Oscar from future meetings, what can we do?

Educate everyone about opaque metaphors
Not everyone Not everyone knows what
a metaphor is. Make
sure they do.
knows what a metaphor is. Make sure they do. Then explain that an opaque metaphor is one that raises new questions about its relation to the concept it supposedly clarifies.
Understand that opacity is often deliberate
Opacity could be intended to cause confusion. Ambiguity can provide a shield by postponing specificity. And it can compel others to ask for clarification, which can make Oscar seem superior, giving him a chance to condescend.
Verify that an opaque metaphor incident has occurred
We must verify the opacity of the metaphor. Poll the attendees, possibly privately, asking, "Were you also confused by the hounds-and-foxes metaphor?"
Log the incidents
Don't rely on memory. If more than a third of the attendees agree that the metaphor incident was exasperating, log it.

When you have enough entries in your log to qualify this issue as a performance issue, have a private conversation with Oscar. If that doesn't work, ask his supervisor for assistance. If that doesn't work, ask your own supervisor to deal with Oscar's supervisor. If that doesn't work, improvement depends on the behavior of the rest of the group. Go to top Top  Next issue: Anecdotes and Refutations  Next Issue
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See also Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

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Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
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