Yes! No! Maybe!


August 17th, 2009

In some cultures, yes means yes, and no means no. Elsewhere yes is the answer to everything. And sometimes yes means no, and no means yes. Or maybe. And other times, it depends – on who answers first, what the question is, or even who asks it.

This creates a few dilemmas for facilitators.

And it reminds me of this puzzle that Dave Winer posted recently:

Four logicians are having breakfast. Waitress asks — Will you all be having coffee? The first logician says “I don’t know.” Second says “I don’t know.” Third says “I don’t know.” Fourth says “No.” The waitress returns with their coffees. Who gets coffee?

Or the story Malcolm Gladwell tells in his book Outliers about Korean air crashes, which on investigation had little to do with knowledge or flying skill, and a lot to do with teamwork and communication, particularly ‘mitigated speech’. “We mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or when we’re being deferential to authority,” writes Gladwell (pp 194). He goes on to describe research by Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu that describes at least six ways to persuade, with different levels of mitigation. In this case, the example relates to persuading the pilot to change course.

1. Command: “Turn thirty degrees right.” That’s the most direct and explicit way of making a point imaginable. It’s zero mitigation.

2. Crew Obligation Statement: “I think we need to deviate right about now.” Notice the use of “we” and the fact that the request is now much less specific. That’s a little softer.

3. Crew Suggestion: “Let’s go around the weather.” Implicit in the statement is “we’re in this together.”

4. Query: “Which direction would you like to deviate?” That’s even softer than the crew suggestion, because the speaker is conceding that he’s not in charge.

5. Preference: “I think it would be wise to turn left or right.”

6. Hint: “That return at twenty-five miles looks mean.” This is the most mitigated statement of all.

While Captains said they had no problem issuing commands, the first officers, when talking to their boss, would choose the most mitigated alternative. They hinted. (pp 195).

This suggests to me that we need to be aware of the questions we’re asking when facilitating, the language we use, the linguistic norms of the group we’re working with and the dynamics in the room. All the more reason to be present to what is actually happening, rather than planning for what you think will happen.

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