Last summer, my wife Paula and I were vacationing in the Midwest. As we were driving about 70 mph on a four-lane divided highway on our way to Kansas City, I saw a large deer crossing over the median about 200 yards in front of us. Knowing they sometimes jump in front of cars, I asked Paula, who was driving, if she saw the deer. She said, “Yes, I do.”
A few seconds later, just as we feared, the deer jumped out into the road. Paula shouted, “The deer!” and the next thing I knew we crashed into the animal (or he crashed into us), which damaged the front end of our rental car. Amazingly, we were not hurt. The same cannot be said for the poor deer.
As we were waiting for the tow truck, we discussed what happened. It was a classic case of not being specific in our communication. When I asked Paula if she saw the deer, I was referring to the one in the median in the middle of the highway. When she responded “Yes, I do,” she was referring to a second deer, which she saw ahead in the lane to our right.
A better, more specific form of communication would have been:
JOHN: “Do you see the deer in the median?”
PAULA: “No, but I see the one on the right side of the car about to jump into our lane.”
Too many times we are not specific in our communication, make assumptions, and don’t double-check for understanding. While not as traumatic as hitting a deer, here are a few examples where not being specific enough can lead to hurt feelings, unnecessary conflict, and negative outcomes.
- “I need your report as soon as possible.” What does that mean? The manager asking for the report might be expecting it within the hour. But the other person may already have a full plate and “as soon as possible” is sometime next week.
- “I would like you to be a better team player.” What does that look like? This manager may want the person to attend all team meetings, show up on time, actively participate in team discussions, and support team decisions. The person receiving this message may think that being a good team player means hanging out with the team after work.
- (To a teenager): “I would like you to go and clean your room.” What is the definition of clean? To you, it means picking up clothes and putting them away, making the bed, vacuuming, and dusting. To the teenager, it may mean shoving everything under the bed and calling it good.
Being more specific
One simple way to be more specific is to add the phrase “…by that I mean…” to the end of the request. For example: “I would like you to go and clean your room, and by that I mean…” and then include the specific details.
The level of specificity needed is dependent on the person and the task, so think about both as you clarify the request or assignment.
As you become more specific in your communication, you will be amazed at the corresponding decrease in interpersonal conflict, increase in fulfillment of expectations, and positive outcomes for yourself—and for deer—everywhere.
About the author:
John Hester is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies. You can read John’s posts on the second Thursday of every month.