There’s a distance between what we have going on in our heads and the language we use to illustrate it in the spoken word. A certain amount of signal loss occurs every time we translate our thoughts into language. I’ve always felt I’m unable to condense my thoughts with complete precision, especially when I’m doing it on the spot. I’ve been meaning to investigate why it’s this way and what could be done about it.

To massage my ego and feel better about myself, I’ve always liked to think that it’s because the version of the world I have in my head is too complicated to put into words in the moment. Which conveniently also explains my proclivity for taking to the written word to pen my thoughts with ten dollar words instead. While there might be some truth to that, it also sounds like an excuse for inaction. Perhaps I can train that muscle to condense whatever thoughts, no matter how complicated they might be, into more well formed arguments that paint a more high resolution image of what’s going on in my head. I’m often wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve noticed I’m disagreed with mostly when I’m unable to close the gap between what’s going on in my head and the words I juggle to communicate them. Depending on where you are and who you’re with and how well you know the people you’re talking to, they might offer to assist in clarifying your stance, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’re on your own, in more trying circumstances, around people who are more hostile. I’ve found myself too often in groups where the discourse demands every sentence uttered be an irrefutable truism that can’t be disagreed with - because if the slightest crack is discovered in what you’re saying, then you are invariably and without fail, burned and punished for it.

There are two kinds of discussion. From listening carefully, I can often tell from the onset of a conversation which one it’s going to be. On one end of the spectrum we have the “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” arguments - I’ve always found it difficult to hold my own here. Then there’s the discussion where participants might share their completely opposing viewpoints without ever disagreeing with one another. Less importance is given to deciding who’s right and who’s wrong and more energy is spent in exploring ideas. I could devote the next paragraph defending this style over the other but I’m not going to do that because I would then have to write another paragraph explaining how I’m wrong about all of it.

Because fact is, while we might have our own preference, it’s not as though one style is objectively better than the other. Deciding on what style of conversation is more suited, depends a lot on the context in which it is being held. Relaxing with friends at a barbecue? Makes sense to take your time and share thoughts that might not be well-formed. Team meeting at work with approaching deadlines? You probably want to cut to the chase and make quick decisions. But it’s not that straightforward, because conversations are held between people and nobody’s perfect. So to further complicate matters, the style of conversation also depends on who you’re talking to. Individuals can be conditioned to prefer one style over the other, forcing them to default to their preferred style of communication even if the situation doesn’t call for it. You know, that one coworker who can’t help but go in circles at the daily stand-up and that one friend who’s too hung up on being right at the dinner party. It’s quite a mess. The solution?

Read the room.

Are you at the barbecue or the daily stand-up? Are you on vacation or is it DEFCON 2? Are you with detail-oriented, introverted thinkers or get-to-the-point, extraverted, competitive, manager types? Are you talking to open-minded free-thinkers or narrow-minded bigots? Maybe they appear narrow-minded but they’re not. Maybe you’re with someone who doesn’t know how to read the room. Maybe they do, but they’re too conditioned to only communicate a certain way and don’t know better. Maybe they’re aware of their conditioning and they’re working on it.

Be precise in your speech. Read the room. Be like water.