It happens so often most of us have learned not to notice. It has become one of those things we don’t talk about because we think it’s normal.
So we decided to give it some airtime and finally get things out in the open.
Maybe, though, let’s talk around it for a while without saying what it is.
Without saying what really needs to be said.
Maybe you’ll figure it out on your own. That would be great.
Maybe you’ll even respond in the preferred way we hope you will – without us ever having to tell you what we want or where we stand on the subject.
Have you got it?
Now that we are in agreement we can continue not talking about it.
* * * *
And we are going to talk about this RIGHT NOW, because communication that has this vague pattern as background noise is one of the most destructive – and common – relationship pitfalls.
To illustrate, there is a story in Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, that describes what Korean Airlines went through when faced with having the world’s worst air safety record a number of years ago.
The company had to root out the cause of its tragic dilemma and the answer, when it finally came to light, was NOT what anyone expected.
Their investigations revealed that it was neither mechanics nor technology that was to blame.
It was human error. It was unconscious, systemic, and hidden in plain sight throughout the company.
A cultural bias was discovered that had insinuated itself into the corporate mindset with devastating consequences.
Consultants and investigators identified the culprit as a persistent language pattern called mitigated speech.
The underlying problem: the social hierarchy established over many generations prohibits a person of lower social status to directly give their opinion to a person of higher rank.
For example, a co-pilot or engineer seeing that the ice on the wings might be a problem would be out of order if he spoke out of turn to the pilot.
His rank lacked authority, so it was socially risky to speak a direct opinion. In one Korean Air incident the First Officer was recorded saying, “Look how the ice is just hanging on back there. See that?”, and, “See all those icicles on the back there and everything?”
That’s Mitigated Speech.
It rates only slightly better than saying nothing at all because there is a slim chance that maybe there will be a response that is hoped for.
Much of the time, though, it backfires!
* * * *
In this extreme example the social order and the need to belong literally trumped the need to survive.
It is an extreme example of how mitigated speech can be catastrophic; yet less dramatic incidents occur time and time again in each of our lives.
If you know what to look for – actually, hear for – you can turn the vagueness of mitigated speech into direct and authoritative language.
* * * *
When we mitigate speech or someone mitigates around us, you can be sure there is a lack of empowerment being felt in the relationship.
In a misguided attempt to be heard the mitigating speaker is indirect in their language. They don’t want to risk offending anyone while also being unaware, usually, that their style is experienced as manipulative. As such, they ultimately sabotage the outcome they really want.
As they fear upsetting the status quo they believe their only option is to ask for what they want by hinting at things.
The end result is that they leave their desire in the hands of others, and often wind up resentful, angry and feeling betrayed.
Here are a few more examples of mitigated speech:
Mitigating: “Nobody ever helps me clean up.”
Direct: “Will you help me clean up please?”
Mitigating: “Maybe the HR department needs to know about this situation.”
Direct: “Steve, please call the HR department about this situation today and get back to me when it’s done.”
Another way to mitigate is to make a statement without a following up with another question or statement.
For example, “The garbage needs to go out,” expresses that something needs to be done – the garbage needs to go out.
It is mitigating when the speaker expects someone will take the hint and do the task.
If it isn’t done, there can be hurt feelings (Nobody ever listens to me!), disappointment and blame.
What’s missing is a clear and direct statement or question that makes the intended desire explicit.
The direct language is, “The garbage needs to go out. Will you take it out tonight? Or, “Let’s make sure it goes out tonight.”
* * * *
Mitigated speech undermines confidence and takes tiny bites out of our capacity to show up fully in a work, family or social relationship
It may be a remnant of 19th Century manners when status-appropriate roles required that authority be deferred and power be the hands of the ruling class.
Today, it just feels toxic, sly and victim-y.
These days, when you mitigate around a person who is direct you’re likely to be ignored. You are more likely to generate anger or frustration than to get the outcome you want.
At work, you risk losing respect (or worse) amongst your peers or colleagues.
You’ll come across as disingenuous, be marginalized, and you will be the one who isn’t having much fun.
It is far better to be clear about what you want and to have the courage to ask directly for it.
People won’t always like it, but at least everyone will know where you stand, and that is almost always a GOOD THING.
In closing we quote Laura Whitworth, one of our teachers and a founder of the Coaches Training Institute.
She would say:
“You get to know what you want.
You get to want what you want.
You get to ask for what you want.
And, you get to negotiate the difference.”