How to Tune Into Language as a Technical Leader

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

Technical professions require precision in language. We can’t express computer program code in slang, as much as we can’t express an insurance illustration without being exact. So in our profession, you’d expect all articulation and use of language to be unambiguous and precise, wouldn’t you?

Well research has shown that technical professionals can still lack precision in language outside of pure technical expression. For example, a developer might report “I’ve fixed most of the bugs” or “the majority of code is ready.” I think for most conversations this is OK, as being precise might mean very lengthy conversations! It’s unacceptable in management reports, particularly between supplier and customer.

In today’s world of international outsourcing and flatter management structures, precision of language is growing in importance. Workers are being held to account much more than before, and this will continue. The problem becomes more acute with language barriers and cultural differences.

So I wrote this article titled ‘tuning into language’ to firstly highlight the issue, and secondly to suggest a way forward. The key to avoiding miscommunication is in the art of asking questions, not necessarily bloating reports.

I think it is acceptable, for the benefit of efficient communication, to allow vague statements to be made. Most of the time, people involved in a conversation have enough content and context to know what’s being said. When a communication is more formal, such as an RFP document or project dashboard, there is no escaping the need to lay out all the pertinent information for the communication to be credible. But when it’s a conversation, I think the onus is on the receiver of the message to ‘tune-in’ to the language and ask for more precision. Sometimes (and lets be honest) one might say something vague because we don’t know what we’re talking about deep enough, or are trying to deceive the other person. It happens, particularly with people from other cultures where losing face is a major sin. We shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it! For example, a developer may say “most of the bugs have been fixed”, the receiver may ask “how many have been fixed and how many remain?” or perhaps she might ask “what about the remainder that hasn’t, when will those be fixed?” Further drilling will reveal the underlying data and truth.

This may not look like rocket science, and you’d be right. But I think vague statements often go by unchallenged. I believe that it’s our responsibility that if we partake in a conversation, we tune in and make the most of it by drilling down. This will create the best chance of optimizing the conversation, and from a cynical viewpoint prevent a skilful hoodwink.

This subject was suggested by Juan Cortez in London (thanks Juan)

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