Answering: “What time is it?” Does Not Require Explaining How to Build a Watch

POSTED: Jun. 28, 2016

Have you ever been frustrated by the detailed answer someone gave you to a simple question? Today’s society values brevity. People send short but frequent text messages to update others on their whereabouts and happenings. Few people listen to an entire State of the Union Address, but instead prefer to be informed later by the summary sound bites provided by the news media. This is not a new phenomenon created by technology, however. Back in the day this preference for concise communication was referred to as “Give me the Reader’s Digest condensed version.” You see, not everyone has patient listening skills. If they did, then interruptions would not be such a common occurrence in conversations.

People who have this tendency to provide more detail than listeners require are talking in the manner in which they think. Their process is very much a problem-solution pattern of thinking: describe the history of the topic so that people understand how the current situation evolved, discuss the problem and how it affects people, provide insight as to the potential causes of each one of these problems, brainstorm possible solutions, eliminate solutions one-by-one by providing reasons why these solutions are not viable and then reveal the solution considered to be the best option. And, if there is time, the implementation of this solution is listed in step-by-step detailed instructions so that error can be eliminated, thereby ensuring that the chosen solution really is best. Considering the run-on sentence I just wrote, it is probably no surprise that I also can have detail-oriented tendencies.

For many of us, the reason for providing all of this detail is to convince others that our idea has credibility. The proposed idea is thoroughly evaluated as to remove any margin of error. Detail may also be offered due to a fear of not being able to hold our own during a debate. The thinking is that if all detail has been presented in a methodical way with all aspects of the topic already considered, no debate should be necessary.

Unfortunately this detail-orientation can interfere with the very influence we are trying to achieve. Our credibility can be adversely affected in several ways:

  1. People stop asking for our opinion because they do not have either the time to wait for us to analyze the problem or the patience to listen to the long, drawn-out answer. Result: Our expertise is not being utilized.
  2. We have “buried the lead,” meaning that the solution is surrounded by so much other information that its magnitude has been diminished. Result: Our solutions are not adopted.
  3. Our reputations for perfectionism can lead people to conclude that we are difficult to please. Result: The perception that we are not cooperative project partners.

This third point requires some additional thought: Perfectionism requires a focus on detail; without detail how can anything be accomplished perfectly? It can be difficult to work with someone who has such a clear picture of how a task should be performed and so little tolerance for those procedures not being followed. Often the perfectionist is left to complete the task alone because others are simply tired of being corrected. Maybe this solitude was the goal. But, going it alone does not make us a good team player, now does it?

There is another critical reputation factor that can adversely be affected by perfectionism: accountability. Think of how many times you may have avoided starting a project until all of the details had been considered. The mind-set is: “Don’t do anything until you are certain of the outcome.” Fear of being wrong is a strong motivational force for detail-oriented people. It is often why we cannot speak up as quickly as we would like, resulting in many missed opportunities for our creativity to be acknowledged.

There are several ways to improve detail-orientation and its credibility-diminishing effects in communication:

  1. Loosen up. Learn to prioritize which issues require detailed attention, like safety for example, and which issues do not. Limiting detail in your thinking process will ultimately teach you how to edit detail from your communications. For example: Answering the question, “Do you want cream in your coffee?” is not a high priority issue and therefore does not require a dissertation on one’s history with lactose intolerance.
  2. Sync your inner clock with others. In a meeting, are your colleagues ready to vote? Be careful of choosing this moment to finally state your objections. Bad timing creates the reputation for being negative. During the discussion of ideas, simply state that you have reservations but haven’t thought it through completely. This is a concise statement of the truth. Nothing more needs to be explained at this time.
  3. Speak up even before your thoughts are perfectly formed. Give people a general idea of what you are thinking even before you have it thought out. This builds trust. They can see your “wheels are turning,” but are uncertain of what you are thinking. This makes them uncomfortable, especially if their perception is that you are critiquing them. Even if you say: “I have several ideas but haven’t sorted them all out yet,” you are providing important understanding.
  4. Resist the urge to tell the entire story. Are you one of those customers who call with a question about payment on your account, but cannot resist the urge to tell a long story about why you needed to buy the product in the first place? Customer service reps are trained to listen patiently, but they may also have a timer determining the efficiency with which they handle each call. Your detail may be affecting their job performance review.
  5. Give the moral before telling the story. Learn to put your conclusion first and then determine how much explanation is necessary to describe the idea or prove your point. Notice how these bullet points are arranged. The point first; explanation after.

What if you are not a detail-oriented person, but are trying to communicate with one? First remember: people talk in the manner in which they think. Perhaps you pride yourself on being able to make quick decisions. You are probably the person people turn to in a crisis. But in other situations that are not at crisis level, your quick decision-making can be perceived by the detail-oriented person to be impulsive. In the words of my detail-oriented father: “He just slapped that idea together.” Therefore, if you are trying to interact effectively with a detail-oriented person and to blend your desire for timely and concise information with their need for completeness, consider following these steps:

  1. Talk in detail. If you make a brief statement and walk away expecting that statement to have been accepted…wrong! What you have just done is to send the detailer into research mode. They will be there for days looking for the information that will prove to you that you rushed to judgment.
  2. Stop talking while they think. If in an attempt to get them to decide more quickly you keep saying: “Think about this…” you have just given them more detail to consider and added significant time to their decision-making process.
  3. Tell them how much you trust their judgment. Since detail is used to prove the credibility of their point, reinforce your belief in their expertise often. Then begin to negotiate how much detail they need to present to you. Tell them that even when they are “talking off of the top of their heads,” you believe their ideas are much more thoughtful than most people’s.
  4. Try not to interrupt. Interrupting to move them ahead in the discussion will be counterproductive. They will either shut down and then send you a twelve-page email later (you cannot interrupt them in an email) or start over again. The thought process is that you interrupted because you do not understand. Therefore, they need to go back and provide more detail the second time to help you catch up. If you do ever need to interrupt them, do so with a detailed paraphrase of their point. Do not simply say: “Yes I get what you mean, so what’s your conclusion?” State your understanding of their point in detail. (See Bullet Point #1)
  5. Resist the urge to provide too many templates for talking points. I have seen many managers who have provided templates for their detail-oriented people to use when writing emails or making presentations. This can help the detailer understand what points the manager deems relevant. However, it may also discourage the detailer from providing additional data when the situation warrants it. This is, after-all, a person who is a stickler for the rules. Plus, if all meeting attendees follow the same presentation format every time the group meets, the redundancy creates one boring meeting!

We hear so much about striving for balance in life. Balancing brevity with descriptiveness is one of the areas that we need to consider in effectively communicating with others and establishing our credibility and power of influence. Plus, this balance can affect relationships. If someone is avoiding a detailed person because they fear being “trapped” in a long-winded conversation, a potentially important human connection may be lost. So, next time you are talking with others, avoid TMI.

(NOTE: If you are not aware of what TMI means, please Google it. After all, I am trying to be concise here.)