Making an assumption is the mark of a lazy communicator. It is one of the most dangerous things you can do in dealing with others. A good example is there Mile Island. According to a report in the New York Times, many of the problems that led to the accident that shut down the nuclear plant had already been outlined in staff memorandums. As company officials later admitted, they all assumed someone else was dealing with the matter. Instead of taking the direct steps to ask who specifically was responsible and what specifically was being done, they assumed someone, somewhere was taking care of things. The result was one of the worst nuclear accidents in America history.
Much of our language is nothing more than wild generalization and assumption. That sort of lazy language can suck the guts out of real communication. If people tell you with precision what specifically is bothering them, and if you can find out what they want instead, you can deal with it. If they use vague phrases and generalizations, you are just lost in their mental fog. The key to effective communication is to break through that fog, to become a fluff buster.
There are countless ways we sabotage real communication by using lazy, over-generalized language. If you want to communicate effectively, you have to be attuned to fluff when it pops up and know how to ask questions to gain specificity. The purpose of precision in language patterns is to find out as much useful information as possible. The closer you are to getting a full representation of the other person’s internal experience, the more you can effect change.
One way to deal with verbal fluff is the precision model. It may best be pictured on your two hands. Take a few minutes to memorize the diagram. Take your hands one at a time, and move them up and to the left of your eyes so that your eyes are in the position to best visually store this information. Look at your fingers one at a time, and say the words over and over again. Then go to the next finger and the next until you have memorized on hand. Then do the same for the other. Repeat this process with all your fingers, looking at the phrase and fixing it clearly in your mind. After you have done that, see if you can look at any finger and immediately think of the word or phrase at the end of it. Work on memorizing the chart until the associations are automatic.
Now that you have those words and phrases installed in your mind, here is what they mean. The precision model is a guide to overcoming some of the most common pitfalls in language. It is a map of some of the most pernicious wrong turns that people often take. The idea is to notice them when they pop up and redirect them in a more specific direction. It provides us with the means to quality people’s distortions, deletions, and generalization while still maintaining a rapport with them.
Let us start with the pinkies. On the right hand, you should have the word universals. On the left you should have the words all, every, and never. Universals are fine – when they are true. If you say that every person needs oxygen or all the teachers in your son’s school have graduated from college, you are just conveying facts. But more often, universals are a way of soaring into the fluff zone. You see a bunch of noisy kids on the street and you say, Kids today have no manners. One of your employees messes up and you say, “I don’t know why I pay these people”. They never work. In both cases and for much of the time we use universals we have gone from a limited truth to a general untruth. May be those kids were noisy, but not all kids are ill-mannered. May be a particular employee seems incompetent, but not all are. So the next time you hear a generalization like that, simply go to the precision model. Repeat statement, emphasizing the universal qualifier.