Life coaching demands excellent communication skills and this essential communication principle must be part of your practice: people fill in the blanks for what is not communicated.
My suitcases are monstrosities: big, black and very heavy. And of course, at every airport I am given a “Heavy” sticker (not good for a woman’s self-esteem). Fortunately for me, I don’t have to lug those suitcases around myself. Paid drivers abound.
Since I am usually engrossed in my own thoughts (Where is this hotel? What city am I in today?), it’s easy for me to forget entirely about the weight of those suitcases. Their presence has simply become a “given” in my traveling life.
What Do You Do For a Living? This was why I was startled by the question of one driver several years ago: “Ma’am, what do you do for a living?” Before I could answer, he shot back, “Are you a geologist?” Then I remembered the suitcases. We both laughed and he quickly added the explanation, “Rocks in those suitcases, Ma’am?”
Another trip. Another driver. “Ma’am, did you just leave Fort Knox?”
Another trip. Another driver. “Ma’am, do you have Little Men in those suitcases?”
And so the saga went. Each driver assessed the suitcases and came up with his own explanation for what made those suitcases soooo heavy. And therein is my point: All a driver KNEW about my suitcases was that they were big, black, and very heavy. The drivers filled in the rest. People do the same with your communication. What you don’t communicate, people fill in.
This Communication Principle Needs to be Applied in Every Setting: Same Issue, Different Place
I once watched this scenario play itself out in a community college setting. There was a very vocal “student council representative” who had many grievances against the administration. Suddenly there were accusatory posters covering every public bulletin board in the college. I was a part-time new faculty member and didn’t know much about the intricacies of the situation. I did, however, know from lots of conflict training that there are always two sides to every argument and that judgement is best reserved until you have heard from both parties. I also knew from the classes that I was teaching that there were a lot of students who didn’t share his sentiments, but who did express concern about the accuracy of the accusations.
With time, the messages on the posters increased in both frequency and vehemence. One day, while in the Dean of Student’s office, I casually mentioned the student and the situation. The Dean simply said, “He has the right of free speech. We’ve looked into his behavior at other institutions and this is a pattern. We are not going to his level.” “Are you sure that is the right approach?” I queried. “People don’t know whether the accusations are true or not if you don’t address them.” He shrugged. “It will blow over. I think we have chosen the best approach.” Something bothered me about that choice.
The Costs of Not Understanding This Communication Principle
A couple years passed and I had the opportunity to ask the Dean about the results of that decision. “Well in retrospect,” he said, “I think we should have addressed it. We chose the wrong approach. There have been many repercussions since. We are still cleaning up the mess left by that guy.” As a final aside, the “dissenter” had now moved on and was doing the same thing in another institution, but the repercussions of letting others “fill in the blanks” in this institution lingered.
In addition, the more the anxiety around an issue, the more people crave explanations and information. When there are rumors flying through the office grapevine, it is very important to “fill in the blanks” with correct information. Nature abhors a vacuum and something will be created….it might as well be the facts.
Let’s say the office rumor is that the plant is going to be closed down, used for scrap metal, and employee’s job duties will be taken over by gnomes. Soon, people will “fill in the blanks” with the personality, the gender, and the political persuasion of each gnome. They will be discussing how the scrap metal will be used, and when the cranes will be showing up—in a word, they will “fill in the blanks.”
The Higher the Stakes, The More Important it Is to Get This Communication Principle Right
Application of this communication principle means that you take the time and energy to communicate as comprehensively and accurately as you can. (The higher the stakes, the more important this is.) And it means that when there is an obvious problem of miscommunication, you take the time to address it. The application of this principle obviously varies by situation, circumstance, person, and relationship. Friends “fill in the blanks” with good intent; enemies “fill in the blanks” will ill intent; neutrals “fill in the blanks” with an explanation that seems plausible to them, whether or not it has any basis in fact or substance.
This principle does NOT mean that you over-communicate or over-explain; such choices can easily be seen as weakness or insecurity. You simply keep this “fill-in-the-blanks” communication phenomenon in the back of your mind and be astutely aware of its impact. In other words, communicate very consciously as a coach with your clients.
And if you want to know what’s really in my suitcases…it’s all three: gold bars, rocks (to put in the mouths of the Little Men so no one suspects their presence), and of course, Little Men …well, okay…gnomes…I got them from the last plant closing.