No Undefined Terms: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Vague Language

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Do you ever feel like you’re walking a tightrope when it comes to communication? One wrong word can lead to confusion and misunderstandings, even with the best intentions. That’s why it pays to be crystal clear when communicating with others, especially at work. Unfortunately, using vague language is all too common and can have serious consequences. Let’s look at the pitfalls of undefined terms and why it pays to be specific in your language. With a little effort, you can avoid ambiguity and ensure everyone is on the same page!

Many of the folks we work with are lawyers who spend their days writing and interpreting language. Does this contract clause mean what my client or your client says it means? How can I write this sentence without leaving any room for ambiguity? Yet, when it comes to communication with colleagues, that same precision with language tends to go out the window, causing a few core issues.

Pitfall 1: Unclear Expectations

One of the biggest problems with unclear language is that it can create unrealistic or incorrect expectations. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and even resentment when expectations are not met. If someone asks you to complete something by the end of the week, what does that mean to you? Thursday? Friday? Friday at 5pm? Friday at midnight? In what time zone? Saturday?

If we aren’t precise with our language when we delegate, we might be left with unmet expectations. We’re often very clear in our minds about what work we need to do, how we want it done, and by when we want it done. But we don’t take the time to clearly articulate these expectations to our colleagues because we assume they know what we know. But they don’t. In fact, they’ll resolve any ambiguities based on their judgment of what they think is the best approach. But is that your approach? Who knows! Often, these miscommunications aren’t discovered until the work is turned in, by which time it’s usually too late to correct any problems, which leads to frustration and resentment from both sides. To avoid that mess, be as clear and specific as possible when delegating – define every term, just like you would in a contract. What does “end of the week” actually mean to you?

Pitfall 2: Miscommunication

If you don’t make your intentions clear, you run the risk of being misunderstood. And miscommunication can be costly in a professional setting – from getting the wrong results to potentially damaging relationships with clients or colleagues. A simple example is if someone asks you for a “quick update” on a project – do they mean a verbal update, an email, or a full report?

Another area where vagueness hurts is in feedback conversations. Feedback often sounds like, “you’re doing a great job,” or “everything is fine.” But if feedback aims to help someone improve, how are these vague statements giving them the information they need to shift their behavior? Every piece of feedback should clearly describe the behavior the recipient should continue, change, or stop and give them suggestions for how to do just that. The more specific the feedback, the easier it is for the person to adjust accordingly.

Pitfall 3: Inefficiency

Vague language often leads to wasted time and resources. If you don’t provide enough detail up-front, your team may spend hours working on something you didn’t want. Additionally, when expectations are unclear it can lead to misunderstandings and re-work, resulting in more time and money down the drain.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

The good news is that these types of issues can be avoided with a bit of effort. The key is always to be specific when communicating – whether in emails or conversations. Give clear instructions and provide as many details as you can. This will help ensure everyone is on the same page and avoids any confusion or misinterpretation.

We assume that people know what we mean – whether we’ve articulated that or not. And that can lead to a lot of miscommunication because most people aren’t mind-readers. That lack of mind-reading is especially problematic when it comes to delegation and feedback.

Tips for Writing and Communicating Clearly

Use Precise Language

  • Avoid abstract or ambiguous language – use concrete, literal words where possible.
  • Be specific and describe exactly what you want. Don’t leave any room for interpretation.
  • Ensure your message has all the necessary context so your team can understand it better and more easily.
  • Check yourself! Before you hit send, double-check that your message is clear and that the recipient will understand it exactly as intended.

Avoid Jargon and Unnecessary Words

  • Ditch the industry-specific words and use simple, concise language.
  • Avoid throwing in extra words to make a sentence sound more professional. Cut to the chase – get your point across as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  • Don’t use multi-syllabic big words in an attempt to sound smart or intelligent. This isn’t Scrabble. Keep it simple and as easy to understand as possible.
  • Choose your tone carefully. No matter what kind of message you’re sending, be sure your tone is appropriate and professional.

Ask Questions to Clarify Meaning or Intentions

  • If something is unclear, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. It’s better to ask questions than assume and risk misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
  • If you aren’t sure if your communication was clear, ASK! Check in with the other person to see if they understood your meaning before ending the conversation.

Even when you’ve done your best to be specific, miscommunications are possible, so every delegation or feedback conversation should include clarification – time for the other person to tell you what they understood of what you said so that you can clear up any confusion. Ask questions to be sure that what you intended to communicate was received and understood.

Miscommunication is unavoidable, but we can minimize that risk if we go into every conversation aiming to define every term. Specificity in language is the guard against miscommunication, so be as detailed and precise as possible. And always ask for clarification so that you know that you were understood.

So, the next time you find yourself communicating with someone, take a few extra minutes to make sure they understand exactly what you mean (and vice versa). A little bit of clarity goes a long way in avoiding the pitfalls of undefined terms!

Happy communicating! 🙂

Virginia Kim is an Associate Trainer at Fringe PD. As a Fringe facilitator, she empowers individuals and organizations to modernize & transform workplaces. Virginia brings a wealth of experience as a trainer in multiple disciplines, including leadership training, compliance training and bar preparation. Virginia holds a JD from the University of Chicago, where upon graduating, she spent nearly a decade as a litigator for various firms. Virginia has been a go-to facilitator for organizations across various industries, such as aerospace, retail, and legal.

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