Monday, August 8, 2011

Avoiding responsibility with mitigated speech

[EDIT: Comments here and elsewhere have made it clear to me that I should have been a lot more careful in how I wrote this -- in particular, I think it would have been much better as a more personal narrative, about tendencies I have, at times, noticed in myself. Sometimes I've used this 'mitigated speech' in ways or for reasons that I think I should avoid. Certainly in many, many situations, 'mitigated speech' is very helpful to achieving the goals at hand. Sometime I want to take a more thorough look at indirectness and its uses. This should have been more about particular behaviors in a particular environment in a particular person (me) -- sorry!]

Our managers at work recently read Gladwell's Outliers (warning: I haven’t read it), in which he popularized the notion of mitigated speech (or ‘deferential’ speech), which he defines as "any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said".

Here are six degrees of mitigation:

1. Command – “Strategy X is going to be implemented”
2. Team Obligation Statement – “We need to try strategy X”
3. Team Suggestion – “Why don’t we try strategy X?”
4. Query – “Do you think strategy X would help us in this situation?”
5. Preference – “Perhaps we should take a look at one of these Y alternatives”
6. Hint – “I wonder if we could run into any roadblocks on our current course”

These were each role-played for us with an airplane pilot and copilot, where the copilot had information essential to not crashing the plane. (Apparently, mitigated speech actually causes plane crashes.) In some of the examples (“Do you think we should turn around [instead of crashing into...]?”), mitigated speech prevented the copilot’s message from getting through. I think the lesson we were supposed to take away was pretty simple (too simple!):

1. Sometimes people use mitigated speech, especially when there is a difference of power/position in the hierarchy.
2. Mitigated speech is a form of not saying what you mean.
3. It may be appropriate to temper/mitigate your speech, depending on
your position in the hierarchy. (This is interesting -- not explored very far then, and I won't explore it further myself here.) HOWEVER::
4. Always be aware of what message your trying to convey.

Like I said, too simple -- I don’t think this message will work, because I think it ignores the real reason people talk this way: mitigated speech is a form of cowardice. I’m generalizing here mostly from observing myself, but I’ve seen it enough in others that I think it’s pretty common. It’s what we do when we’re afraid to take responsibility for what we have to say. Sometimes I’ve been working on a project where I thought something should go differently, and I said “Shouldn’t we maybe do ____ because of ____?” Then we did what I thought we shouldn’t do, and it sometimes turned out I was right, and then I thought (wrongly) to myself: “I called that one! I told them it wouldn’t work!”

Of course, I hadn’t actually told them it wouldn’t work. I hadn’t actually said anything. One of the things I’ve been learning is to, in the words of a recent episode of the Lifestyle Business Podcast (focused on advice/encouragement for people starting their own businesses, but it’s useful for those of us inside big companies too, especially those with an intrapreneurial innovation style):

You should “step up and say this is how I think things should go, and this is the
plan”. Give me "something to react to". It helps to be "taking a stand ... so at least you have a way forward".
I really like this idea that taking a stand is the way forward. It’s frustrating when everyone says “it could be this...” or “maybe that...”. Someone should just decide what they think! Propose a plan! That forces the rest of to decide what we think (agree, disagree, whatever), and then we can make some progress. Importantly, this isn’t just a different rhetorical style. It’s actually hard work to decide what you think, and then propose and defend it. But that’s exactly the idea -- forcing ourselves to do that hard work.

And it’s okay to be wrong sometimes. Fear of being wrong is another force (besides laziness) driving us toward “mitigated speech.” So we have to be able trust that we can maintain our credibility in the face of being wrong -- that means trusting in ourselves to deserve the credibility (and of course, having the skills/knowledge to actually deserve it), but also trusting in others not to loose faith.

Learning to trust my colleagues is something else that I believe has helped take a stand more often. I’m lucky I have great people to work with.

In summary: We often use this ‘deferential’ speech, especially with people in positions of power. But those people are busy! They don’t always want you deferring to them for every decision. Of course, someone more powerful than you will often have the final say to decide otherwise. But even that can be made easier for them if you first decide what you think, and then tell them.

Finally, here’s another tip from Ian and Dan in the same episode of the Lifestyle Business Podcast. I think this can also apply in the corporate world as in their entrepreneurial world:

"#5 never ask anything more complicated than a 'yes'"

"If you're asking for resources, or money, or time ... get it all set
up so all you need is that person to say YES. That demonstrates that
you're competent, that you care, and that you're willing to take
responsibility. ... [as a simple example:] -- the
smallest deal possible is getting a cup of coffee with somebody. 'How
do you feel about grabbing a cup of coffee sometime?' It's bad enough
that you want me to figure out how we're going to be doing this, when
we're going to be doing this, or even if I want to be doing this. But
you want to know about my feelings, too? I've gotta write a
5-paragraph essay to this person. Give me "I'm gonna be at the
Starbucks at 8pm Wednesday night. Can you swing by? Just make it easy
on me."


  1. I received a really nice reply from Dan Andrews, who aptly points out that there may be plenty of situations where indirectness really is called for:

    Might be an exception to your cowardice rule when it's useful or productive to be deferential, as it often can be the case with difficult personalities etc. Another way to say that: sometimes it's really a good thing to obscure your meaning. People are more likely to challenge or defend against direct stuff, but suppose thats sort of obvious. I've never been turned on to this way to frame it up, enjoyed reading the piece.

    Thanks Dan!

  2. What if the power dynamic is unclear? Recently I was playing for a dance, and a caller (who has been calling for years) did something I thought was pretty bad. I pointed it out to them using (4). If I had just said "you need to do X" that would have been rude, implying that I had authority to tell them what to do. I'm not all that happy with how I handled it (not speaking sooner) but I don't think being more direct would have helped.

  3. Yeah, as someone who hovers in the 1 to 2 range (I think I know what we should do and I say so directly) I find it's a pretty poor way to maintain equal status relationships. I've known people who can direct groups much more effectively by at using the rhetoric of 4-5, it seems to require detailed knowledge of how the group members think however.

  4. Thanks for the comments Jeff, Matt.

    See my clarification at the top. All the various reasons (most of them probably good reasons) for indirect speech are very interesting. I meant to be addressing one particular cause of this kind of speech that I mostly have a problem with. Sorry.

  5. Dan's comment is very useful. When those in power are very ego-driven giving a direct suggestion can be rejected without being considered. Posing the suggestion as a hint or question " i wonder what would happen if". "Do you think it might help if" etc allows the power person to save face, think it's their idea , remain in the position of control. This hint then is not motivated by cowardice but is a strategy deliberately used to get something done when the person in power has an ego need to remain in control of everything. Often used by those who are motivated by result rather by credit or ego need i.e. Knowing when to use it this way comes with experience and practice. Interesting topic.


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