Are You Specific or Diffuse?

Balaji’s Food For Thought - Feb 3, 2014

Balaji Krishnamurthy
Leadership & Culture

Different people tend to speak with different levels of specificity. Over this past Super Bowl weekend, somebody commented, “I like watching the Super Bowl for its commercials.” This is a statement of personal preference with some broad judgment intended. It is unlikely that somebody would disagree with the intended judgment since it is stated as a personal preference. That individual could alternatively have said, “Some of the Super Bowl commercials are really funny,” or “Super Bowl commercials are really well done.” Each of these alternative expressions takes a position with which a listener could more likely disagree. Some people speak with specificity and some people speak more diffuse.

Although the specificity of one’s statement may depend on the situation and the subject matter, we all have a tendency to be more specific or more diffuse compared to others around us.

For example, somebody taking a sip of coffee poured from a fresh pot and finding it lukewarm might comment, “You know, coffee is best when served at least 180°F.” This is a very specific statement, and it causes listeners to determine for themselves whether they agree or not. A listener may or may not question the position, but agreement or disagreement is implicitly or explicitly established. People who are “Specific” either expect that others will agree with them or tend not be concerned with disagreement. Their goal is to establish a very clear position and are often happy to take on (to understand or to challenge) opposing points of views. They will often express their opinions as statements of truth. People who are Specific do not shy away from controversy and disagreement.

In contrast, in the example above of a lukewarm cup, the coffee enthusiast could have commented, “You know, coffee is best when it is served rather hot.” Notwithstanding the iced-coffee fans, it is hard to disagree with that statement. It is a diffuse statement that casts a broad enough net allowing for people with a variety of opinions to find some common ground. People who are “Diffuse” speak with less specificity so that all listeners can find some overlap in their position. They are more interested in finding common ground and then narrowing the common ground as far as possible, than finding the contrast between their true position and that of the other person. When they want to be specific they will often couch it as their opinion. People who are Diffuse tend to shy away from controversy and disagreement.

Is one better than the other?

Are we labelled as Specific or Diffuse and do we always speak in that manner? Clearly, the answer is “no” to all those questions. However, if you observe yourself you will find that you have a tendency to be more one type than the other. By becoming self-aware of your natural tendency you can be more intentional about how you speak in particular situations and with particular audiences.

Some audiences – accountants, lawyers and engineers come to mind (sorry for the stereotyping) – tend to be specific in their communication and might find diffuse conversations full of platitudes and lacking in substance. On the other hand, other audiences – artists, salespeople and politicians come to mind (again, my apologies) – tend to be diffuse in their communications and might find specific conversations obnoxious and opinionated. By being aware of your audience, either broadly or as specific individuals, you might be able to structure your communication to balance your needs with those of your audience in choosing how specific or diffuse you wish to be.

We close with a self-referential question: Is this article Specific or Diffuse? How could this article have been written to be more specific or more 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.