Vague Language Impacts Confidence

A natural tendency we all possess is vagueness in our language…without realizing the impact it has on confidence, ours as well as others.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “They said…” – Who is they and how reliable are they?
  • “Recent polls show…” – How many people were polled? Why were they chosen? How diverse is the group? Was the size of the group statistically significant? Were the questions crafted in a way to eliminate bias?
  • “It’s a fact that….” – A fact to whom? On what basis do they consider this a fact? Is it possible that others have different experiences and, consequently, different facts?
  • “It’s in the front of…” – My wife and I have completely different definitions of front and back regarding our camping trailer. To me the front is where the door is and back is on the opposite side. My wife views the front of the trailer as where the hitch is, the back where the bumper is. You can imagine how much fun that conversation is.

These, and similar uses of vague language, often lead to confusion, frustration, even anger.

At the very least we experience confusion and resulting inaction or delayed action when vague language is used. Imagine the joy my wife experiences when I say “the front of the trailer” and what she wants is on the door side near the bumper.

She feels that I wasted her time, am inept at communication and, if this happens repeatedly in a short period of time, she’ll “reward” me with a period of strained quiet. Understandably so. I’d feel the same way except that men don’t typically use quiet to respond to their displeasure.

Speaker confidence

The impact of vague language can go well beyond the emotions just discussed. Frequent usage of vague language can impact both parties confidence.

The speaker who frequently has to rephrase (explain) what she said is likely to lose confidence in her communications skills and, consequently, become less communicative. As a result she’s likely to be perceived by others as quiet, shy, timid, withdrawn or aloof.

While this may prompt kindhearted people to approach her to help her out of her shell, the vast majority of people will simply choose to ignore her. You know how exhausting it can be to have to “carry the conversation” which is why we prefer to be with gregarious people…people who love to have fun.

Listener confidence

From the listener’s vantage point, we lose confidence in the speaker. We find that having to regularly clarify what the person is saying tedious and tiring. As a result, we tend to avoid them. Life is too short to spend time trying get what we need to accomplish what we want from a person that we don’t feel that we can trust. It isn’t that we feel the person is dishonest, the reason for our distrust is that we’re not sure what they mean when they communicate with us.

Our typical response to vague communication is to avoid vague communicators, which solidifies both our lack of confidence in them and their perception that they aren’t being understood. This impact leads them to feel less confident in their communication skills which results in them being less communicative with the negative outcomes outlined above.

At the same time, the listener is very likely avoiding what could be a valued resource…all because of vague communications.

For you

Pay attention to the times when your communications elicit interest, understanding and excitement. Then make note of what you said so that you can use that language again.

Then pay attention to the times when you lost the listener’s interest, where the person became confused or when excitement waned. Again, make note of what you said. Finally, consider how you could have communicated what you said more succinctly. What you’ll discover is that over time, using this simple exercise, you’ll become more precise in your language.

As a result, you’ll experience fewer periods confusion, frustration and anger. You’ll also find that others enjoy working with you which enhances both your confidence in yourself and others’ confidence in you.

You’ll also be able to help those who regularly use vague language overcome a natural tendency that doesn’t serve them well.

For our kids

I rarely start a message with “don’t.” But in this case I think it’s appropriate.

Don’t tell your kids to be more specific every time they use vague language. You know how you’d react to someone regularly interrupting you to tell you that you’re being vague. They’ll react the same way.

Instead, when their communications elicit clarifying questions from their listener, whether it is you or someone else, ask them “How could you have avoided that confusion, that frustration, that anger? What might you have said that would have produced a better result for you?”

By the way, don’t forget to live the message. When the kids in your life observe you being precise in your communications, they’re more likely to be precise in theirs.

Finally, how many vague communications did you see in this blog post? As much as I know about being precise in my language, there are times when I fail to give adequate thought to what I’m about to say. In doing so I experience the same result everyone else does when they are vague in their communications. We can continuously improve, but we’ll never be perfect…so never stop trying.

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