Specific vs Diffuse: Part 2

Balaji Krishnamurthy

Last month David Baker, our CEO, wrote a provocative article challenging axioms – statements we believe to be self-evident truths. I want to thank David for filling in during my vacation. I also want to use him as an example of how to intentionally use both specific and diffuse forms of communication effectively.

A year ago I noted that some people are specific in their communication with intent to bring forth clarity of thought and others are more diffuse in their communication with intent to bring forth commonality of thought.

Both styles have value, and the value is enhanced if you’re intentional about your natural style and the style appropriate for your audience. While my natural style is specific, David Baker is able to use either style based on what is appropriate for the audience. Let me provide two examples of David’s writing to illustrate this point and speak to the value of being intentional in your communication.

In last month’s Food for Thought, David wanted to respect the provocative nature of these articles.

To be provocative and controversial, you need to be specific in establishing your point of view and contrasting it with alternative points of view.

In analyzing the axiom, “If you are going to bring me a problem, make sure you bring with it a solution,” David points out that the traditional view contrasts an employee who is building with an employee who is throwing rocks. Having been specific in that contrast, he switches to the other side and provides concrete and convincing arguments as to why you should promote and encourage employees raising issues for which they have no solution. His style of specific communication is very effective.

A couple decades ago, I learned an interesting lesson. Trained as an engineer, with a background in math and a passion for logic, I have always been specific in my communication. But, while listening to my VP of marketing tell our sales force about a new series of products we were introducing, I learned that diffuse communication might achieve your results better than being specific. He drew an X-Y axes, labeled the horizontal axis with old products and new products, talked about how the old products had floundered, spoke about the amazing value of the new products and drew a sweeping graph that zig-zagged from the bottom left to the top right, proclaiming that our new products are going to take our business to new heights.

Questions came to my mind: What was the X-axis? Products? How were they arranged? By introduction date? What was the Y-axis? Units? Dollars? Was this a cumulative graph? If so, how did the graph go down with the current products? I was trying to figure it all out. Meanwhile, our sales force had heard the rallying cry. They were pumped. They cheered! Had my marketing VP not accomplished his goal? How does it matter if the graph didn’t make any sense? Being diffuse might have been the best way to communicate to that audience at that moment!

Let’s come back to David Baker. In his monthly blog, David wrote an interesting post titled “What is Normal?” He pointed out that, while most people try to fit in and be normal, it is the outliers that get noticed. To make his point he drew this picture.

Of course, I had a plethora of questions: What does the line mean? What is represented by a circle on the left side versus the right side? How about circles above and below? Are circles above and to the right better because that is the way we think? And what do the size of the circles mean? Are bigger circles better? Yet, in spite of all my questions, I understood what he was saying in the article. The picture communicated it. Was he being diffuse? Absolutely! Was he effective in his communication? Superbly! In a blog, where the intent typically is to connect with people rather than provoke them, diffuse communication allows for each reader to interpret as they choose and find common ground.

It’s important to understand both specific and diffuse communication.

Each has its value. Each is more effective in different circumstances. Each of us has a preference in our own individual style. Yet, it behooves us to be intentional about using the right style for the right situation.

On this topic, my good friend and colleague, Glenn Mangurian, pointed out that the appropriate style not only depends on the circumstance, but the speaker-listener chemistry. Glenn and I developed the following model for what might happen based on whether the speaker and the listener are specific or diffuse:

  • When the speaker and listener are both specific, they are likely to assert and evaluate. On the positive side, they might find clear agreement or find disagreement and extend their thought process. But the same conversation could turn into a debate, with each of them arguing and trying to prove that he or she is right.
  • When the speaker is specific and the listener is diffuse, they are likely to assert and consider. The listener respects the speaker’s point of view and learns. But the speaker could also be viewed as being arrogant and opinionated, with the listener agreeing in pretense.
  • When the speaker is diffuse and the listener is specific, they are likely to explore but evaluate. The listener is likely to ask for clarification and agree or offer a different point of view. Alternatively, the conversation could turn into an argument where the listener browbeats the speaker for specificity that the speaker either does not have or is not willing to offer.
  • When the speaker and the listener are both diffuse, the conversation is likely to explore and agree. Both the speaker and listener could become innovative and the conversation could become generative. Or the conversation could meander without reaching conclusion, with both the speaker and the listener agreeing without understanding.
In each case, conversation can take on a positive tone and create value or a negative tone and destroy value.

It is useful to acknowledge the natural tendency the speaker and listener and intentionally drive the conversation toward the positive, value-creating outcomes.

I started the article thanking David for filling in last month. I want to end with recognizing his ability to switch modes when appropriate and thank him for letting me use his example to illustrate the value of being intentionally specific or diffuse. I encourage my readers to read his monthly blog.

We elaborated on these concepts in a webinar held on Wednesday, May 27th from 10:30 am – 11:30 am (PDT).

We welcomed two special guests at the webinar, David Baker and Glenn Mangurian, who chimed in with their thoughts on specific versus diffuse.

Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.

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