Don’t Take me (too) Literally

Years ago I was part of a heated discussion about the ability/inclination of a team I was on to build a requested feature. The ‘other team’ insisted on 100% accuracy, something that just wasn’t possible – a point we considered both obvious and easy to demonstrate, and we wanted to understand what to do in the cases where we couldn’t get the answer. For a variety of reasons this ended up with someone literally yelling at me that “you know we didn’t mean 100%!”. Me, puzzled, thinking (and maybe yelling back…) “how would I know that when you say 100% you don’t mean 100%?”.

It helped to realize that it was a communication problem, but it was clarified in an instant later in the day when a very senior person in the organization said to me that “you guys are so literal, but we (business people) just aren’t like that”. That is a basic truth in our business. We in IT need precision, we expect it, and we tend to give it, but for a business, 100% availability often means 100% between 9 am and 5 pm not counting breaks. It taught me to repeat back what I heard – not the words, but what I thought they had told me. Just doing that revealed that a good third of the time we had not communicated. Fixing that, or making progress, increased the success rate and decreased the frustration. Obvious? Maybe. Easy. No.

But the thing I didn’t understand was a bit like a bad logic puzzle. If A is always literal and B is never literal, shouldn’t it be easier for B to understand A? Or let’s say that A is learning a second language, only knows some of the words, and has to listen hard to hear the words. B is fully fluent. Doesn’t B soon realize that A just can’t follow fast sentences with words they don’t know?

Understanding the difference was an epiphany, but I’ve always felt like it was more of a failure on their side than mine.

Until recently. I sent out an email to some people I work with with. I’d like to think I communicate reasonably well, but I also communicate a lot, and it’s the rare email that I really polish and obsess over. I try to state my thoughts and intent, send it off, and then move into discussion mode. That’s not always the right technique, but not every email is a million dollar proposal, you just can’t polish every email you send.

One of the replies was essentially admonishing me for using imprecise language, for not 100% clearly expressing things. And I swear, what I was thinking was “you knew very well what I meant”. Holy cow, I’ve changed sides!

The language indeed could have been better, but I think the other person also did know what I meant. Should I have written it better. Yes. Sure. Absolutely. Is it wrong to ask for clarification? No. Of course not. Etc. But…there is a difference between expecting reasonable clarity, asking for clarification, and expecting the equivalent of source code in conversations.

What I’ve realized is that I’m in the middle of the pack, more or less. I’m far more literal in both speaking and listening than many, but I’ve not as literal as some. It’s a smaller lesson, but I wish I had learned it sooner, which I suppose is true of all lessons.

Think on that, and I’ll be following up with another lesson I’ve learned about my communication skills in the next few days.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Take me (too) Literally

  1. I find myself on the side of the literal precise communication more often than not.

    I try to let these things slide when I can. But you’re right miscommunications to pop up from time to time and when the “you know what I meant” comes at me, I have no problem saying “I actually didn’t” which is the whole reason for the miscommunication and the argument about the miscommunication!

    It happens to me more often than I’d like.

    Great post. Bringing up a topic that I’ve never spent a lot of conscious though on until now.


Comments are closed.