I get a lot of ideas in the shower. I won't really call them epiphanies, most of them aren't really worth much but it is good to stay amused wherever you are. The best I can generally hope for is a little clarity. Today's idea gave me some clarity around clarity in communication. How you say things can be every bit as important as what you say. Today's shower thought, I think, is worth considering and maybe even a little discussion.
Let's start with a little story about my shower. We have a pretty standard bathtub shower with a shower curtain and a curtain liner. The liner is waterproof and functional and the curtain is pretty and not so very functional. About a month ago or so it was decided that the curtain liner was getting dirty and needed to be cleaned or replaced. After more complications than need to be discussed, we cleaned the curtain liner and I put it back up.
Let's fast forward to this week. I've been noticing that the ends of the curtain liner have been curling back from the wall a little, not producing as effective a water seal as I would like. I've been fiddling with them a bit to little success and today I found myself wondering if maybe it's because the liner used to be reversed. I don't know that I put it up in the opposite direction to the way it spent the first 15 months of its installed life but looking at it in the shower, I couldn't see any particular reason it should go one way versus the other.
Knowing that my wife bought and installed the curtain and liner originally I figured that asking her if she knew if there was a 'right' and 'wrong' way to have it up might shed some light. As I started to holler out a question from my shower I stopped myself. I should have stopped myself regardless because you can yell out questions from the shower all you want but you can almost never hear and understand the response but this time I stopped myself for another reason.
Here's the question I was going to yell out, "Hey sweetie, is this shower curtain liner reversible?" A pretty innocuous question all-in-all you might think but in reflecting on the question I realized that there lies within this statement an onus of assumption that my wife is supposed to have this knowledge. I grant you that she could simply say, 'I don't know,' without any real problem and not think anything of it. But, if moods aren't as good at that particular moment as they might be, this tone, or onus of assumption, might feel a little presumptive and accusatory. ie, if she doesn't have this knowledge she might slip into defensive mode. Defensive mode can all too quickly escalate into some sort of fight. Suddenly an unimportant question might put us on the outs. If I had, with pretty much exactly the same amount of energy and thought input asked this question instead, "Hey sweetie, do you think this shower curtain is reversible?" that onus simply wouldn't exist in the same way. It's obvious in the second form of the query that I know that I'm simply asking for an opinion.
A little later, when out of the shower, I asked my wife the question, the second way. Turns out she doesn't know. Then we talked about the different possible forms of the question and she readily agreed that there is an implied onus in the first form. Both of us also agreed that in a committed and successful relationship there is already tacit agreement to give a person the benefit of the doubt in most situations that the partner is coming from a place of caring and understanding and that they expect the same in return. So the conversation ending up being defensive is less likely and even if it does, we're more likely going to come to an amicable conclusion.
Turn this around though to the relationships you have in the workplace. There is no particular need for any one person to take the things you say or ask in their most generous interpretation. (I recommend that you live your life coming from that viewpoint but I do find this to be the rare and wise individual that is capable of this) Indeed it is more likely, in my experience, that one in three people is more than capable of reading any statement in a way that will leave them negatively impacted.
Yesterday I was talking with one of my guys. His sprint team is having some issues, mid sprint, and it looks like they might not accomplish their goals. In bringing up the fact that there might be some challenge in reaching their goals for demo day there was some negative blow-back. If you know that you're a person who is more responsible at that particular point for success in the sprint, you're more likely to become defensive when it comes up as a point of discussion. Again, this is human nature, it takes a wise individual to not jump to the defensive stance. In this type of situation the words that you use to bring up the topic are incredibly important. There are defusing ways to tackle the subject that help everyone staying in the productive 'how will we fix this' mind-set rather than the defensive, 'this isn't my fault, leave me alone' mind-set.
By example, you could say the following, "If you don't get me this feature until next week we won't be able to finish it in time for demo." This phrasing is particularly fraught with challenge because it also provides the semi-justifiable out that it was delivered to someone else before end of sprint therefore the blame belongs to the person who got it last and didn't finish it. If, however, you said it like this, "I see that things aren't moving as quickly as we'd anticipated, what can I do to help move things along better." Both phrases accomplish the necessary task of starting a dialogue about getting things done but the second will start in a more productive space.
To come back around to my shower and the title of this post, I had this moment of clarity about how being clear in what you're saying isn't just about using words that mean the right things, or even in just in being succinct in what you say. If you want to be an effective communicator you need to understand your audience, their context and the way that they're going to listen to what you say. The way that you say it can combine with the way they're going to hear it to produce an effect that you never intended.