Monday, February 1, 2010

Moments in Marriage: Hinting Is Not Good Enough

Fiona: (Looking at the explosion of disorganization in the garage, speaking to husband.)  It sure will be nice when we get all this squared away. (Interpretation:  Will you please clean the garage?)

Phineas:  (Searching for the ice scraper.) Uh-huh. (Interpretation: Where can that ice scraper be?)

Fiona:  Do you think we should buy some shelving? (Interpretation: I mean really, we can’t even find AN ICE SCRAPER! We’ve got to get organized.)

Phineas:  Yeah, sometime. (Interpretation: I think I left it on the radial arm saw.)

Fiona:  It would be great if we could start this weekend. (Interpretation: Will you please clean the garage soon?)

Phineas:  Maybe so. (Interpretation:  No.)

Have you ever heard a conversation like the above? Have you ever HAD a conversation like the above? Fiona’s communication is the most difficult for others to understand and the easiest for others to refuse. That is, she is using “the hint.” It is referred to as “mitigated speech,” and is what we use when we’re trying to be polite or diplomatic, such as when we’re talking to our boss or supervisor. The strongest level of speech is a clear command (“Clean the garage. Now.”), while strength decreases through statements, suggestions, queries, preferences, and finally, Fiona’s fav, hinting.

There are certainly appropriate occasions for us to use mitigated speech, to be polite and diplomatic. But in a marriage relationship, what does the listener get out of a hinting interchange? Not much. It’s no newsflash that the garage needs cleaning. And what does the listener need to do after that interchange? Not much. There are plenty more urgent items that need attention. Result: ineffective communication. Nothing is resolved and Fiona is probably frustrated.

A proven methodology has been used to train pilots and co-pilots to communicate effectively. During training, the co-pilot learns to cast himself in an alternate identity, different from his learned cultural role. He learns and practices more assertive communication based on statements such as “I think,” “I feel,” or “I believe.”

The pilot is also trained to solicit input by responding positively and requesting more information from the co-pilot. In the aviation industry, this type of communication training has been successful in vastly reducing the number of airplane crashes in the last decade.

Hmmm. Maybe Phineas and Fiona would benefit from some communication training; it might help them avoid a crash.

Research used for this blog:
James Detert and Amy Edmondson in the field of business management in 2007 
Geert Hofstede in business psychology 1970s
Linguists Fischer and Orasanu in the field of business communication
Malcolm Gladwell, author, Outliers, 2008


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