You open your laptop and glance at your emails and Rob, your tech lead, has sent you an email from last night “Can you follow up on this request? See attached. Need ASAP.” Subject line: “Follow-up from meeting” You reread the email. Thinking your caffeinate free brain missed a sentence. You open the attachment; it is a detailed but ultimately uninformative diagram. What on earth does Rob want you to do? This leads you to ask your teammate Larry, what’s going on. He’s not sure but he does know that Rob is in meetings all morning. Great. Do you reply and ask for clarification? Maybe it’s not that urgent. Try to grab Rob between meetings? Maybe it’ll be something simple to explain. Guess your way through it and just make something? I mean something is better than nothing, right? None of these options are ideal ways of getting the task done. Though we have all been there at some level, sure sometimes the request is for project COBOL x2 or some other vague jargon of the week. But the issue is the same. Vague requests leading to the poor recipient having to perform tea leaf readings to decipher any meaning.
Good communication is a skill that takes constant practice and we all will fail at it at some point. One tangible approach you can implement to help clarify your ability to communicate is to never say this. And that’s it, the word “this’’. It is defined as “used to identify a specific person or thing close at hand or being indicated or experienced.” It is one of the most used words in the English language coming in at the 21st most used word, but can also be the most ambiguous word to use when trying to convey a clear idea. The concept of being “close at hand” is where the trouble comes in as “this” quickly becomes “what’s on our minds”. Back to our example earlier, Rob was thinking about your weekly client meeting and therefore his email was perfectly clear to him. Where communication broke down was when he failed to convey what was “close at hand”. Writing a sentence or two for background would likely have quickly snapped your mind into the right mindset and using your own knowledge you would have hopefully been able to start piecing together the pieces.
The best way to avoid this issue is to avoid the use of the words “this” or “that” without clearly having a definition in what you are writing. If you aren’t sure if it is properly defined then spell it out. You’ll have fewer issues and less confusion about over clarifying than under clarify, and most likely people will appreciate having clear and actionable correspondences to work from. You’ll also be creating clear documentation for yourself as three months later you will be in a different mindset too and being able to quickly and easily understand past work can be invaluable months later. When in doubt work on clearly defining what you want to convey. I may take a little extra time but you’ll more than make up for it in time saving by not having to explain yourself again later.