If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know how fanatical I am about precision in language. Our dialogues could be so much more productive—and efficient—if we avoided sidetracking them with inflammatory or inaccurate words. Conversely, precise language gives us the best chance of conveying our ideas more clearly to people who might not share or be familiar with them.
Sometimes, though, inflammatory and imprecise is the way to go—if we tell our dialogue partner what we’re doing.
Take conversations around loaded issues. Early in our marriage, like many newlyweds, my wife and I had a wealth of issues to talk through, from division of household chores to the future course of our life together. Some of these issues carried serious emotional weight, and it was nearly impossible to broach them without sparks flying. Ever try to parse your words with precision when the top of your head is about to blow off?
Before we could make any progress in the conversation, then, we had to relieve some of that emotional pressure. But we didn’t want to do it in a way that would hurt the other person.
So we learned to bracket our conversations with verbal cues. When one of us said, “OK, I’m going to vent,” the other knew that what followed would be emotional, possibly painful, and probably imprecise. It could well exaggerate or misrepresent the reality of the situation. But because the “venter” gave this advance notice, the “ventee” could hear the words that followed in the proper context—the context the venter specified—and thus not react emotionally. Often, the vent would calm us down, and we could focus on our language enough to work through the intricacies of the issue.
We also do this bracketing when precise language escapes us. As she describes the details of a real-life situation—especially if they involve numbers—my wife will say, “I’m making these details up.” Again, that verbal cue enables me to hear what she says next in the context she’s established, so I get her essential meaning. If precise details become important, we can fill them in later.
Why does this matter? Why not parse out our language no matter what? Perhaps that would work if we were just word automatons. But, being human, we’re far messier than that. The passion we feel on certain issues is inherent to who we are: the issues probably wouldn’t be issues if we weren’t passionate about them! Giving voice to these emotions not only calms us but also conveys the depth of our convictions. And when we’re honestly groping for specific words—something that happens with greater frequency as we get older—why let it disrupt an otherwise fruitful dialogue?
The key, again, is to tell our dialogue partners what we’re doing. These verbal cues enable us to telegraph how we’re communicating in any specific stage of the dialogue. They help our partners better understand our meaning. Therefore, they contribute to a richer, more productive dialogue.