Photo: Flickr/William Brawley
During World War II, Winston Churchill was marking up a classified document that the Allied forces were waiting for in order to go into action. On one of the pages Churchill wrote, “Watch the borders,” referring to the manner in which the typist had left little room for him to make comments in the margins. When the Allied generals read the document, they believed that they were being advised by Churchill to watch England’s borders in the southeast in order to stop a possible enemy invasion there. Of course, there was no invasion. Luckily, this misunderstanding between Churchill, his generals, and the typist did not result in unnecessary death or devastation. In war, miscommunication can cause havoc.In business, too, high-achieving professionals need clarity, not ambiguity. When bosses, customers, or others fail to make their meaning clear, they ratchet up anxieties. You turn in a project to your boss and when you ask what he thought of it, he gives you nothing more than a nod. Did he feel you let him down? Is he so displeased that he is deliberately holding his tongue for fear of devastating you? Does his nod signify it was just OK, far below what he expected of you?
Driven, ambitious people generally assume the worst about ambiguous responses. If ambiguities recur, they turn their negative feelings inward and start creating worst-case scenarios; they begin to question their purpose within the company. Maybe with all the changes that have been going on, they no longer belong there? Maybe they have outstayed their welcome and are viewed by others as over-the-hill? Ambiguity provides a fertile field for anxieties to thrive.
Given our reflex to misread vague communication, we might consider asking for clarity in the following ways:
- Express your uncertainty: Tell the ambiguous communicator that you don’t understand what he means by his nod or his neutral statement. Say something like, “I’m sorry, but I can’t figure out what you’re trying to tell me by …”
- Express your concern: Address the biggest fear you’re reading into the ambiguous communication. Don’t beat around the bush. Say, “I’m not exactly sure I understand what you are saying.” In most instances, your concerns are unfounded, and hearing this from the other person will lessen your anxiety.
You have every right to expect even your largest customers and most powerful bosses to communicate with you unambiguously. But too many of us don’t. We don’t ask for clarity because we are afraid of what we might hear. We don’t want to discover that the nod we received was in fact a nod of disappointment. More importantly, we fear that we will look stupid or weak by asking for clarification. Yet, it’s better to hear the truth than allow anxieties to surface in the wake of ambiguity. In most instances, clarity provides reassurance, since most ambiguous people don’t even realise when they’re being unclear. Even negative feedback, which is rarely as bad as we expect it to be, can be satisfying in the sense that it tells us where we stand and what we need to work on. Armed with clarity and straight talk, we can work more effectively with a greater sense of purpose and without fear.
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