That goes without saying! Not.

Whenever someone complains about a third (absent) person I usually suggest talking to said person directly. In my mind it makes perfect sense that we can’t expect someone to behave differently in the future, if they’re unaware that their behavior offended someone.

Surprisingly often I get replies like:

  • “But that should be self-evident! I really shouldn’t have to spell it out for her.”
  • “He knows that! … or at least he should!”
  • “Should be obvious, shouldn’t it?”

The irony is not lost on me, given that the conversation only takes place, because it didn’t work out as expected and it most probably wasn’t clear. But instead of assuming “wasn’t clear” the offending behavior is often attributed to malicious intent and / or laziness. In my experience these reasons apply only in a minority of cases. The following reasons are much more common:

  • Just forgot
    It can happen to everyone. Maybe the offender can install some kind of reminder for herself.
  • Unknown rule
    When you want to communicate a new rule to 30 people, you’ve got about a snowball’s chance in hell to reach everyone. There’s always that one guy who managed to miss the announcement and hasn’t read the mail, either.
  • Unclear expectations
    If you are sharing work with someone else for the first time, be very specific. Spelling tasks out will safe you time and nerves later on. Depending on the situation, go ahead and write your division down. Then you’ll both have something to refer to later on, when you can’t remember who was supposed to fix the flux capacitor.
    When people are convinced that everyone’s responsibilities are clear cut (without ever talking about them), my inner alarm goes off: I’ve often witnessed that in the heads of both coworkers the tasks were divided by a clear cut. But in one head it was “A1|B1″ and in the other it was “A2/B2″ (where A1,A2,B1 and B2 are subsets of tasks).
    Sometimes it takes a “humor me” to start people to spell out and distribute tasks. And only then do they find where their notions differ, which would have let to violated expectations, dissatisfaction and grumbling down the road.

In all these cases talking has a reasonable chance of improving the situation. In German there’s a saying for this: “Reden hilft!” (“Talking helps!”).

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2 Comments That goes without saying! Not.

  1. Daniel Temme (@autowired)

    Hi Corinna,

    interesting post. You raise some good points. Especially the danger of attributing negative intent when it was just some form of miscommunication is very common in my experience. At least I fall victim to it more often than I’d like.

    On that subject, are you familiar with the Ladder of Inference? It is a pretty useful tool to describe the problems in how people end up with differing assumptions. http://blog.benjaminm.net/argyris/the-ladder-of-inference/ has a good description and Benjamin Mitchell’s blog is a pretty interesting read in general.

    Reply
  2. Corinna

    Hi Daniel!
    I wasn’t familiar with the ladder and find it very interesting. It’s reminds me of “Master your story” from “Crucial Conversations” (which also aims at a clear distinction between observation and interpretation), but I think you can never know enough of these techniques 🙂
    Thanks for the link!

    Reply

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