Leah Mether

Do you talk in roundabouts to avoid having difficult conversations?

Speak vaguely in the hope other people will eventually guess what you’re trying to say without you having to say it?

This laboured and indirect approach is often used by passive communicators and those who doubt themselves. It also thrives in organisations with strong hierarchies, where management is seen as intimidating or aggressive.

Rather than have direct, clear and succinct conversations, people talk around topics for fear of creating conflict. They take a softly-softly approach (if they dare say anything at all) and appear almost deferential to the person they are speaking with.

But rather than increase other people’s opinion of you, being vague can undermine confidence in your ability. It makes you appear uncertain at best; incompetent at worst. It also leads to frustration, with the person on the receiving end often interrupting to urge you to get to the point.

Vague and indirect communication is not only annoying, it can also allow problems fester and grow. The recipient of your communication may not pick up what you’re putting down and remain oblivious to issues that could have been dealt with early.

But most significantly, vague communication can be dangerous. It can lead to mistakes, accidents and disasters, sometimes with tragic consequences, as Deborah Tanner explained in her article ‘The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard & Why’, published in Harvard Business Review.

Tanner referred to a study by Charlotte Linde in which she examined the black box conversations between pilots and co-pilots before aeroplane crashes.

One particular case took Tanner’s interest; an Air Florida crash into the Potomac River during bad weather that killed all but five of the 74 people on board.

“The pilot, it turned out, had little experience flying in icy weather,” Tanner wrote. “The co-pilot had a bit more, and it became heartbreakingly clear on analysis that he had tried to warn the pilot but had done so indirectly.”

Tanner studied the transcript of the black-box conversation and found the co-pilot had repeatedly called attention to the bad weather and ice build-up, but had done so in an indirect manner to soften his communication because of the strong hierarchy of their positions.

He said things like:Look how the ice is just hanging on his, ah, back, back there, see that? See all those icicles on the back there and everything?”

And: Boy, this is a, this is a losing battle here on trying to deice those things; it [gives] you a false feeling of security, that’s all that does”.

The pilot remained unfazed.

Just before they took off, the co-pilot also expressed concern about abnormal instrument readings, but again he didn’t press the matter or directly articulate his concerns to the pilot. Instead he said: “That doesn’t seem right does it?… Ah, maybe it is.”

And then the plane crashed and 69 people died.

It’s not always easy to speak up and communicate in a direct and assertive way. Yes, sometimes you will be criticised for doing so by a superior or colleague.

But I tell you what, if you think your plane is going down it’s better to stand up and speak courageously and take a hit for insubordination, than crash into the ground because you chose to be vague or stay silent.

State your point clearly. Do the thinking first about what it is you really want to say, simply and concisely, and then have a conversation.


Leah Mether is a communications specialist, trainer, author, professional speaker and director of Methmac Communications.

She helps people get out of their own way and step up for success with the development of soft skills (which are actually really hard).

To find out more about Leah’s work, visit www.methmac.com.au.