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A Cure for Confusion

A strategy for spotting and dismantling verbal land mines.

Language is a means for communication, but it can also be a means for miscommunication.

This essay is not about mild confusions, such as transposing digits in a telephone number or forgetting an appointment. The topic is the kind of profound confusion that leaves all the parties to a conversation shaking their heads, if not their fists, and arguing about what went wrong. This essay is about breakdowns in common ground.

These breakdowns are insidious because each person erroneously believes s/he is on the same wavelength as the other. They may not discover their error until it is too late to avoid damage.

Here’s an example. Many years ago I was invited to a meeting on helping the Army train officers for leadership and decision making. At the meeting, a Colonel from the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command explained that many small unit leaders had ta be removed because of poor leadership skills. A representative from an army laboratory jumped in and described the new three-part leadership training program his unit had just completed. Next, a technology developer explained how his organization’s new virtual environment platform could be perfect for presenting the training. Everyone in the room was enthusiastic about this new project. Everyone but me.

I asked the Colonel to explain the kinds of leadership problems that were plaguing him. He confessed that he didn’t know. All the records stated was that the lieutenants and captains had to be removed because of leadership problems. “That could be micromanagement or lack of management. Excessive strictness or excessive permissiveness. Being too punitive or too soft. Don’t you have any more details?” He admitted that he didn’t. I explained that the term “leadership problem” was so vague it could cover anything. And because we didn’t know what the real problem was, how could we be confidant that training program was even relevant here? What bothered me wasn’t that the people in the room had different notions of “leadership problem,” but that they all believed they had the same notion. They were getting ready to commit large sums of money to a training program that might have zero relevance to the Army’s needs

I thought about this incident recently when I met with a friend, a physician who had just resigned her position with a hospital. She’d been hired to take over Safety Operations and transform the hospital into a safety conscious exemplar. Now, several years later, she was bitter about how the higher administrators had blocked her initiatives. “They weren’t really serious about wanting to promote safety,” she complained. I disagreed. I didn’t think they had misled her. They were sincere, but their idea of “safety culture” didn’t mesh with hers. Only when she hit them with new ideas did the mismatch become clear.

So what’s the solution? I think what’s needed is a two-step strategy. Step One is to identify the verbal landmines that can trigger a Common Ground breakdown. A program to combat leadership problems — that’s a trigger. So is a hospital position to install a safety culture. Or an agreement to remodel an office. Or to raise a child to be a good citizen. These cases all contain verbal landmines.

Step Two is to dismantle the verbal landmines once we spot them. A way to do that is to use stories. Stories and examples can rescue us from the ambiguities of language. When I was a college freshman, the first course I took was Intro to Philosophy, and the first reading assignment was a Plato dialog, Euthyphro. In this dialog, Socrates carries on a conversation with Euthyphro, a leading citizen of Athens. Socrates asks Euthyphro if he knows what “piety” means. Euthyphro explains that it is hard to put it in words, and wants to give Socrates some examples, but Socrates waves him off. He wants it in words. So Euthyphro tries, and stumbles, and fails. Socrates is able to show that Euthyphro really doesn’t understand the concept of “piety.” Chalk one up for Socrates. However, many years later as I thought back to this dialog, I realized that Euthyphro was trying to use stories and examples — the technical term is an ‘ostensive definition.’ By rejecting examples, Socrates shut the door on the power of stories. Stories are concrete, whereas language is notoriously slippery. In my Army example, I was asking the Colonel for stories of leadership problems so that our group could calibrate on the same types of failure.

I suggested to my friend that in future job interviews, even if the hospital administrators insist that they want a safety culture, she could try to anchor the discussion by offering some examples of safety changes other hospitals have made. She can explain that she wants to understand the administrators’ comfort zone. She may try to stretch their comfort zone, but if her ideas are clearly out of their comfort zone, she is just setting herself up for failure and setting the hospital up for frustration. She can have a more meaningful conversation about specific cases — how they fit the hospital’s plans and how they might be incompatible with the hospital’s needs — than the usual exchange of platitudes and empty values statements.

This two-step strategy doesn’t have to take a lot of work. We just need to train ourselves to notice the slippery terms when we make an arrangement, and then spend a few minutes pinning these terms down with stories and examples. We can invite our colleagues to add their stories. It’s not a guaranteed solution — we can’t inoculate ourselves against all confusions. The two-step strategy is only for confusions that might lead to Common Ground breakdowns between people. But it might prevent a lot of unnecessary misunderstandings.