Clarity or Criticism


I recently had a conversation with a colleague who shared with me his observations pertaining to my conversational style.  As a result of the exchange, I have made a huge leap forward towards greater self-awareness, and for that I am forever grateful.  Below, I share with you both the experience and the learning.

As a backdrop, one of the early classes in my Executive MBA program was titled Powerful Conversations, the tenets of which revolved around an exploratory approach to conversation along with the pursuit of clarity. It is the clarity piece that I shall focus on here.

I have witnessed conversations between two people where something was said and it was apparent to me that the two were not exactly on the same page.  In these instances, I would speak up and point to my perceived misunderstanding between them, thus avoiding potential outcomes that could be disappointing at best.

I tend to be equally pro-active in preventing similar breakdowns in conversations where I am a key participant.  I search for clarity when I converse with people.  I am never comfortable with the later conversation that contains the phrase (or something like it), “…oh, I thought you meant…”.  Rather, I much prefer the preemptive conversation (or something like it), “…ok, you said….,  I understand that to mean ….”.  Moreover, I sometimes repeat myself in conversation on key points when I seek to provide clarity as well.  Until this recent conversation with my colleague, I had not been as aware of the effect this ostensible act of splitting hairs might have on those with whom I interact.  From my perspective, my persistence on clarity is only proportional to my perception of either the consequences if it is later learned that there was a misunderstanding, or the magnitude of ambiguity in what is being said.  For me, pursing clarity is how I show that I am involved in the conversation.

What I have come to realize is that the unintended consequences of my search for clarity is the appearance of criticism.  Rather than guarding myself and the person with whom I am conversing against the undesired outcomes begotten of misunderstanding, I might, more than I realize, come across as being critical of the way someone said something or the words they chose.  For example, I might ask someone to explain what they intended by the words they are using. I then might explain what I interpret – or what could be interpreted – by what they said.  In other instances when I am conveying information, I might repeat myself if I do not get some sort of indication, be it verbal or non-verbal, that what I said was received in the manner with which I intended.  In the first example, I now realize that it might seem that I am being unduly critical of how the person is speaking.  In the second, I realize that I might seem to not trust the other person’s ability to either follow along or be engaged with me in the conversation.  Nothing could be further from the truth than these two misconceptions of my intent, which is and always has been, to avoid ambiguity and show that I am fully in the conversation – two causes I had long thought to be noble.

And here lies the epiphany for me.  We all have varying levels of comfort with ambiguity. I tend to have very little. Others have more. So when I seek clarity, I now understand why others think I am being critical.

I do not intend to acquiesce my quest for clarity.  My new commitment to conversation going forward is to be more aware of the fact that we all balance clarity and ambiguity differently.  And, my development step is to learn new techniques for assuring the clarity I desire while not appearing to be critical.

Thank you for reading. Have a great day!

Matt G.

About Matt Gorman

Life-long learner. Collaboration enthusiast. Avid cyclist.
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