The word “GIGO,” an acronym for “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” was often used by software programmers in the 1970’s when computers were first being developed. It means that since computers only operate on the basis of logical processes, if you load the computer with bad information then you will get bad results. In the arena of computers this principle is still true—and it certainly holds true with communication and speech too.
If I speak unclearly by using vague and ambiguous words then I should not be surprised when I get bad results. This past week my nine-year-old son reminded me of this principle when he said something that helped me to see that I had in fact been using “fuzzy” language. Unfortunately when it comes to language, our fuzzy speaking often results in frustration and disappointment for those relying on our words. Like a splash of ice water on the face, it became quite clear to me that this was the case with my son.
For more than six months I had been promising that I would help him build a wooden storage box as a special gift from him for his mom. It’s really a pretty simple task, something that I could normally knock out in less than an hour or so, but I had passively been putting him off knowing that working with him would demand half a day or more of my time and more patience from me than his little box could hold.
Typically, like most kids who want to do something, his many requests to build the box always seemed to come at the most inopportune time, like when I was in the middle of fixing a toilet, a doorknob, or some other household task. I had been clear the many times when I told him, “No, not now” but that always led to his follow up inquiry of “Then when?” This is where I fell short in my communications because I had been saying things such as, “Some day,” “Sometime soon,” or “When I get caught up.” After months of my stalling he finally called me on my words and said, “So I guess that means we just aren’t ever going to do it.” My son had learned to listen to my actions, not my words, and my fuzzy communication was causing him a lot of disappointment. My heart went “Ouch!” and I was guilty as charged. Needless to say, I told him a firm date that would be devoted to his box and I kept my word and did it.
Consider these three simple things we can all do to eliminate “fuzzy speech.”
1. Learn to be comfortable with making others uncomfortable
It can cause us a lot of discomfort to tell people something they don’t want to hear. Telling a co-worker “no” when they want to hear “yes” is hard, so many times we try to avoid the uncomfortable feeling by saying things like, “Let me think about it,” or “Maybe.” There is nothing wrong with telling someone you need to think it over if in fact you really do, but if you already know the answer then just say the “yes” or “no.” Being honest with others in the moment will help you get more comfortable with disappointing others. It also frees your mind up to move on to new tasks without the burden of having to get back to them about a matter.
2. Learn to say what you mean, and mean what you say
Many times people mean “no” but say, “Maybe.” Or they say “Yes,” but then have no intention of really following through. When we mean what we say and say what we mean we will have a stronger urge to follow through and perform as we promised. Being truthful in our speech also helps others to respect our words, and in turn respect us. Setting clear boundaries and the proper expectations of ourselves in the minds of others often starts with communicating clearly.
3. Learn to be an active listener
When we listen actively we tend to interact more with the speaker and more readily recognize when they are using “fuzzy speech.” If someone replies in a vague way we can always stop them and ask them, “I’m not sure if I understand what you are saying, can you please be clearer?” Or we can even say, “I’m not clear—are you saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” And if they really have a “maybe” then we can ask them when we can expect to have a definite answer from them one way or the other. By actively listening and participating in a conversation we help others, and we also begin to recognize those same patterns in our own speech so we can work to eliminate them.
Improving our speech patterns will go a long way towards improving our relationships with others. It helped me with my son—it will help you too!
What else has helped you eliminate unclear communication? Let me know in the comments below.