Let’s talk about words. If I say “ruby” to someone at a jewelry store, I’m going to get something very different than if I say “Ruby” on GitHub.
If you ask me when I’ll be done editing the annual report and I say “soon” I might mean by Friday, and you might think I mean I’ll be done in three hours.
Shared vocabulary is a prerequisite for any successful conversation.
It’s your responsibility both as a speaker and as a listener to get clarification on words that might have multiple contexts when you’re in a conversation with another person. When you just assume, well, you know the cliché.
But how do you ask for clarification without seeming like a jerk? It depends on who you’re talking to. If it’s an internal conversation, that should be pretty easy: “Does ‘soon’ mean 3 p.m., Lisa, or does it mean next week? Let’s choose a time so we both know what to expect.”
With customers and other important third parties you have to exercise judgment. A prospective customer says they’ll get back to you “soon.” What on earth does that mean? You can say, “That’s great. Shall I follow up with you in a week? Two? What would suit you best?” If you get a flustered pause followed by a vague non-committal response, then you can interpret that as you have more selling to do. If your customer says, “Oh, I’ll need two weeks to get this past my CFO who’s wrapped up in closing the quarter”, then you have a much clearer idea of where you both stand.
You give your difficult boss a draft document and she says, “I just hate it, do it over again.” That’s not remotely helpful, but you have to be super careful about not poking the bear. You can try, “I’ll get right on it. What did I miss in this version that you want to make sure I capture in the second?”
Patience and diplomacy are often required on a search for clarity, but a little bit of effort up front to get on the same page with your conversation partner will save keep you from falling into the drama that comes from unspoken, unfilled expectations later on!
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