Precision and Passion Fruit

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I have a strong suspicion that most people have a few favorite ingredients they are always interested in finding new applications for. In my case, it’s passion fruit. Whether it’s on a menu or in a supermarket, I am overjoyed to discover new ways to consume this tart, floral delight.

On a recent grocery run, I noticed the customer in front of me remove passion fruit juice from her basket, placing it onto the conveyer belt. I immediately moved forward to examine the cartons and then proceeded to ask her if it was good. She looked a bit confused, but said she liked it as she paid for her groceries.

As she walked away, I was struck by how ridiculous my question was. I asked if it was good. Of course, she thought it was good! Who pays hard earned money for something that isn’t considered “good?”

Feeling a bit silly, I turned the interaction over in my mind, wondering what I really wanted to know. I ultimately realized that my question was imprecise, therefore unlikely to receive a satisfactory answer.

I have since considered how often we are imprecise in our communication. This can show up in how we form or phrase a question, make a statement or request, or just talk about an issue. There are a couple of obvious problems with this lack of precision…

  1. We aren’t likely to get our questions answered or move a conversation forward. One of the most pervasive questions people tend to ask is, “What do you think?” The person being asked this question is unlikely to spontaneously stumble on the actual area you wanted them to cover and will instead give you whatever initial impressions come to mind.
  2. Imprecision in the workplace can lead to human resource (and potential legal) issues. One example of note is the HR manager who kept referring to an employee’s schedule adjustment as an “accommodation.” Accommodations are meant to be carefully navigated, with everyone clear about the parameters, not an offhanded remark.

What steps can you take to become more precise?

  1. Get clear on what you really want to know before you ask a question. Assess what information you are really trying to elicit and ask a question that will accomplish that goal. You might even realize that the questions you actually have is for yourself. In my case, what I probably wanted to know was really more of a rhetorical, “How have I never seen this product before?” The answer to that could only come from me.
  2. Establish common definitions. We take for granted that others are using the same words in the same way we are. Take for example, the word “transparency.” Some people believe that transparency is telling absolutely everything, whereas others believe it is on a need to know basis (and everything in between). When a word is abstract (particularly if it’s one where there is a strong theoretical aspect) it is wise to ask others what definition they are using.
  3. When you are on the receiving end of an imprecise question, try to get more information about the requestor’s interests. It can be as simple as, “Please give me more insight as to what you would like to know.”

Don’t feel bad if you have made any of these communication mistakes. Asking imprecise questions is a pretty common phenomenon. Luckily, the fixes are quite simple, and the payoffs can be fairly immediate.

As long as there are new ways to enjoy passion fruit, I am certain the scene at the grocery store will play out again. Next time, I will be ready.