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Mitigated Communication

Hint: The walls in our condo look a little dirty and are chipped in some places

Query: I wonder how many hours it would take me to throughly wash all these walls or if it might not be better to get them painted ? 

Suggestion: My sister-in-law told me about a painter she’s often hired in the past. He has very reasonable rates. 

Obligatory Statement: We really need to paint these walls

Command: When we leave on our next holiday I am hiring a painter. I refuse to hang any pictures on these walls till they are painted. 

I have been learning about the various levels of mitigated speech for a presentation I’m giving next week and I decided to apply what I’d learned to the ongoing discussion Dave and I are having about whether the walls of our new condo need to be painted. 

The idea of mitigated communication comes from Malcom Gladwell’s book The Outliers. He says people express their opinions with different levels of forcefulness—the least forceful being a hint and the most forceful a command— depending on whether they feel comfortable enough with another person to ‘tell it like it is’ or they feel a need to ‘sugar coat’ their message. Often people use mitigated speech because they want to be deferential to someone who is above them in a personal or career hierarchy or because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Sometimes Gladwell says, mitigating your communication can be dangerous. 

He gives the example of a co-pilot who fearful of offending his superior—the pilot, didn’t communicate the problems caused by weather clearly and consequently their plane crashed. When the black box was recovered, the tape of the two pilots’ conversation revealed that the co-pilot had used hints to talk to the pilot about the nasty weather and had made suggestions about de-icing the wings but never actually came right out and said it was necessary to have the wings de-iced or commanded that it be done before they took off. 

Learning about mitigated speech has got me thinking about the way I talk to different people in my life and the way they talk to me. There are some people I only need to give a hint and they ‘get it’ right away. Other people need an obligatory statement or command. There are some situations where a command is effective— “MaryLou wake up! You are sleeping through the movie!” and other situations— for example when I don’t feel like cooking supper —when a hint, “Dave you make such delicious chili” is all that is needed. 

What next? I’ll keep you posted about whether or not we paint our condo walls. 

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