Make Things Obvious


It’s striking how often I come across two things that are almost the same, except with a few differences. It’s the difference between then and than – near-identical words (and almost homophonic), but using one vs. the other will completely change the message. Or, when looking at two pieces of art that look almost identical, except that one uses just a shade of a darker red.

What’s the point of learning how to tell the difference between these kinds of minor differences? The thing about a minor difference is that it can eventually balloon to become something bigger. The 1 in 60 rule is a good barometer for this. The rule is: for each degree you’re off over a particular course (in the linked article, it’s about air navigation), you’ll miss your target by a certain amount. The longer the distance, the more drastic the miss. Here’s another article that takes a look at that over different distances.

This is as true for interpersonal communication as it is for travel. Communication is the art of discernment – figuring out what exactly someone is trying to say, and paying close attention to make sure you don’t miss out on a small detail. What seems small to you might be a big deal to someone else and vice versa. If there’s a miscommunication, that’s easy to correct (especially if it’s flagrant) and you can usually identify where it happened. But when all sides think they’re on the same page, it gets much more difficult to get to the root. Everyone thinks that they understand the situation, but no one really does. How do you go about clearing that up?

The easiest way is to leave nothing to discern. Be very explicit in your instructions or about your comprehension. If you need to clear something up, do so immediately, not when it snowballs into a bigger deal that’s much more difficult to correct. A little bit of early work – in this case, writing more than you may think is necessary – can save you hours or days of pain later on. When everyone is on the same page and no one has any questions about how to proceed, that’s when you should proceed.

Of course, this is the ideal. Depending on how big a project is, you may need to add more people later on. Having a set of written principles or material to catch them up to speed will be integral to success. They may have more questions that need answering; this should be looked at like a boon. It gives you another opportunity to refine what you’re trying to convey, lessening the chance of miscommunication with others. If there’s any reason to abide by “There are no stupid questions” (besides being a good person in general), it’s because it’ll make things that you think are obvious obvious to everyone.

That last point – making things obvious – is something that’s come up more times than I’d like to admit (on my end, as well as others). When I present an idea, I know most of the details. But others don’t. They can’t read my mind, and unless I make things explicit, they won’t know the extent of my thought (though they may infer some things, it won’t ever be a 1:1 match). Even after making everything explicit in writing, they may have more questions. This should be looked at as an opportunity to refine your own thinking; others will have ideas & input that could make your project or idea much better than what it is.

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