The Downside of “Polite” Communication

Communication with family and coworkers can be frustrating. I find it particularly frustrating when I try to communicate with simple questions and get polite but not specific answers.  Now, I know people try to be polite when it comes to communication, and I am even guilty of it myself, occasionally. Let me give you an example. It’s 4:40 PM, and I ask my sister: “Are you hungry?” That sounds simple enough doesn’t it? However my sister will reply: “I had something to eat about 1:30 PM.” Now I have to decide if 3 hours and 10 minutes is long enough for her to be hungry again. Here’s where the game begins:

o    I could try to ascertain, for a person her height and body weight, how many calories she would burn per hour.

o    I could ask what she had for her last meal.  By finding out what she ate for her last meal, I could decide if it was a sufficient amount of food to sustain her for 3 hours and 10 minutes or longer.

o    I could ask her what activities she had been doing for the last 3 hours and 10 minutes to see if that would increase the calorie burn rate, causing her to be hungry.

There are many factors to consider. I think I’m going to have a nervous breakdown trying to collect all the possible inputs to determine if my sister is hungry!  Or, I could ask her to answer the question and be specific in her response.

I understand why people are reluctant to give a straight answer to a simple question. Many people want to be polite, and they feel that if they answer a question ambiguously it will allow the questioner to interpret an answer that will be agreeable to their position, and therefore, reduce the possibility of conflict. I contend that being ambiguous only causes frustration for the questioner, and makes the respondent appear to be unsure of them self.

I use the following exercise in my classes when teaching communication. I draw a line on the white board, divide it into 4 sections and label the line: 0%; 25%; 50%; 75%; 100%. I then write below that line the following terms:

1)    Just about
2)    Almost
3)    Close
4)    Looking good
5)    Not much more
6)    A tiny bit more
7)    Got started
8)    We have a bunch more to do

I ask each student to rate each one of the terms on a scale of 0% to 100% on how close to “finished” each of these terms mean. This is always good for a couple of laughs, but the point should be taken that ambiguous communication is not helpful when reporting the progress of activities in a project.

It is your responsibility, regardless of your position, to be specific when reporting on progress. If you are the project manager it is your responsibility to make sure you understand exactly what individual contributors are reporting. You can typically get away with being polite at the expense of being specific in a social situation. Although it may frustrate the questioner, there is no harm done. In a business setting you can still be polite, but you must also balance that politeness with being specific. Without specific communication, project managers risk losing control of their projects.

More on the dangers of allowing incongruent communication later…

From Darrell Stiffler

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