DON'T BE COY
It's amazing how many ways there are to miscommunicate.
One trick that can cut down on miscommunications is summed up by the improv comedy mantra, DON'T BE COY. This simple directive reminds improvisers that thinking a thing and communicating a thing are very different.
Let's say you wanted to start a scene in a veterinarian's office. You could initiate the scene with something clear and maybe a little hamhanded, or you could initiate with something more artful and nuanced. The common temptation is to gravitate towards what feels like a more artful initiation, but what is often a more confusing one.
Here is a blunt, clear example of an initiation in a vet's office:
"Welcome to the veterinarian's office! Dr. Gunder will be available to see you shortly."
Clean and blunt, this line quickly communicates a location and relationship for an improv scene. As already confessed, it is somewhat hokey and you could rightfully object that people don't proclaim, "Welcome to the _______" when you visit the supermarket, the health club, the comic bookstore, etc...
Compare it though to a more subtle attempt at a similar initiation.
"Please fill out this form and return it. You and Tigeroo can sit there while you wait."
Okay, so this does sound closer to something you might hear in a vet's office. But think of all the ways it could be misinterpreted. Would it be wrong to think that the mention of a vague required form, attached to some unknown procedure, sets the scene not in a vet's office, but instead in some future bureaucratic dystopia, similar to Terry Gilliam's Brazil? And what of the mention of Tigeroo? Sure that could be a cat, but it also might be a Chewbacca-like figure. Would it be wrong to respond to this initiation by mentioning the Kessler Run?
Don't get me wrong, good improvisers could build fantastic scenes from either initiation, even if the Kessler Run were mentioned. But if the goal is clarity, then the wisdom of DON'T BE COY is clear.
Thankfully, most people aren't tasked with creating impromptu comedy scenes at work. Nonetheless, DON'T BE COY still has much to offer colleagues hoping to communicate with each other smoothly.
Consider an imaginary performance review, and let's make it a tough one so that the stakes are high and this post is more dynamic!
Norman is a relatively new office assistant with light responsibilities and it is time for Stephanie to provide him with a 6 month review. There is a problem. Norman has been opening the office in the early morning and consistently entering the wrong security code. This triggers a silent alarm at Prism Security which has led them to make a series of early morning, panicked calls to C Level executives looking to see if Norman's company is being robbed... again! Along with this upsetting morning routine, a growing pile of false alarm fees is accumulating, all unknown to Norman. If things don't change, he'll have to be let go.
But telling Norman about this failure makes Stephanie feel uncomfortable. What if she offered this assessment?
"I think you're doing well, Norman. But there have been some concerns. Sometimes little things get by you, so I'd like you to try to pay attention more to the little things. Besides that, I think we're heading in the right direction."
This assessment is practically a riddle. It lets Norman know that he isn't perfect, but besides that, there isn't much to go on. You could imagine him becoming an even less effective employee as he focuses increasingly on all manner of minutia.
How about something a little more direct?
"Great work, Norman! There has been a little issue with getting the security code entered correctly in the alarm system sometimes, and also some other stuff like that. But other than that, A+"
This assessment at least mentions the real issue, so Norman has a shot at fixing the problem. But the assessment, while kind, is a veritable minefield of miscommunication. Consider the dangers:
The assessment vastly undersells the severity of the issue.
The assessment contains a red herring, by creating the fiction of additional similar issues. Of course, Norman has no way to address these issues as they do not exist, so the opportunity for wasted time and effort is great.
The headline of this assessment is that he is doing great! Meanwhile, the real story is buried deep in the article. That's the wrong order.
What if Stephanie applied the wisdom of DON'T BE COY? Then her assessment might flow something like:
"Norman, everybody likes you and wants you to succeed. You've consistently been entering the wrong security code in the morning. This results in Patty getting super early phone calls on the West Coast and in hundreds of dollars of fines. I've emailed you about this before. If you can't fix this problem, I can't see you staying in your position."
Blunt but direct. And obviously the clearest message.
I'll add that I sympathize with anyone who read that last assessment and felt their stomach curl into a knot. Mine did too as I wrote it! Telling someone they aren't doing well is uncomfortable.
Here's the thing, that feeling is about you, it's not about Norman. Norman needs and deserves to know that he's been messing up. If you focus on how you are feeling when speaking with Norman, you might end up saying something confusing in your attempt to protect your feelings. Instead, try focusing on whether or not the person you're talking to understands you.
That basic dynamic is at play a lot of times when we confuse each other. Think about the improv initiation featuring Tigeroo (great name). A player who initiates in such a way may have been focused on making themselves seem like a nuanced and advanced improviser to the audience, instead of focusing on whether their scene partner could understand such a textured initiation. If they had been focused on their scene partner they might have chosen a simpler approach.
People who know each other extremely well (say people who have worked expansively with each other for at least 3-5 years) can come to understand each other's hints, nuances and light suggestions in a way that is impossible for people who are just getting to know each other. DON'T BE COY applies more to latter than the former.
Being blunt is not the same as being rude. While it may not be helpful to protect your own feelings, protecting your listener's feelings is critical. If they get hurt, they'll stop listening.
Good exercises to bring up DON'T BE COY include:
Terry Withers 10.29.20