The Cost Of Clarity, The Value Of Vagueness

At first glance, clarity seems like motherhood and apple pie: universally useful, with no downsides.

It’s often a great selling point for Clean Language.

“Clean Language can help you get things crystal clear. Want to know what someone really means by something they said? Simply use the 2 Lazy Jedi questions respectfully to help them figure out exactly what they meant, and share that information with you.”

In Dutch, the Clean Language questions are even called the Clarifying Questions.

Clarity is really handy in loads of situations. In particular, it can help to avoid expensive mistakes like this one at the Winter Olympics.

But it seems to me that sometimes, vagueness has value, and that the interplay between vagueness and clarity deserves attention.

When you want people to feel comfortable to change things, it’s a good idea to hold them in a vague state.

That’s why facilitators who want lots of group engagement love sticky notes. Everyone knows that stickies can be moved about. If necessary, they can be added to, scribbled on, thrown away, replaced… People get hands-on and do stuff with stickies.

The same goes for the Lego bricks in Lego Serious Play.

And the same can go for people’s answers to Clean questions like, “When you are working at your best, you are like… what?” Or, “What would you like to have happen?”

However the person experiences their answer – as a word, a mental image, a feeling or a blend of these – initially, it’s likely to be vague.

And that vagueness has value.

Vagueness means that it’s fluid. It can shift and change, and/or be shifted and changed. It can be sculpted to take different factors into account. It can flex. It can grow.

Deliberately maintaining that vagueness for a while also allows for individual distinctiveness to emerge – the antidote to groupthink.

Imagine that two people both answer, “When you are working at your best, you are like… what?” with the same single word. “Machine,” for example.

To encourage groupthink, leave it at that. Write both answers down, just as they are.

Fred: “Machine.” Betty: “Machine.”

Implication: “He’s just the same as me.”

That’s tidy. That feels safe. But it’s not true.

To discourage groupthink, encourage distinctiveness by allowing things to stay vague initially, and only later gaining clarity. Ask, “What kind of machine?” “Is there anything else about that machine?”

Fred: “An all-singing, all-dancing machine. Like a fairground organ with a dancing clockwork monkey on the top. It can entertain people all day.”

Betty: “A kind of robot that works at a big warehouse, putting everything in its place and keeping a detailed record.”

Inviting people to draw their eventual answers highlights the distinctiveness. Use sticky-notes to give people extra freedom to change things later!

Is Clean Language facilitation about finding the right balance between vagueness and clarity for your specific context? Comments most welcome!

  • Thanks to Tobias Mayer for the image (above) which prompted this thinking. Absolutely no criticism intended, by the way!

6 thoughts on “The Cost Of Clarity, The Value Of Vagueness”

  1. Pirjo Mikkola

    Good points, lovely title. Might clarity be just a flash of shared understanding and then again: WKO clarity is that clarity?

  2. How interesting and timely that you are posting this as I just heard some nice feedback from a doctor whose shoulder problem I assessed the other day with the use of some clean questions. He liked the way I clarified his need before starting his physical assessment… We also discussed what the cost was when presumptions are being made and is causing unnecessary investigations and distress to the client

  3. There is this kind of famous paper by B. Lipman “Why is language vague?” (with the hilarious abstract saying only: “I don’t know”) where he concludes: “It is not that people have a precise view of the world but communicate
    it vaguely; instead, they have a vague view of the world.” Taking the Cynefin model into account (which I love as much as you) I would add that we cannot have a precise view of the world because it is a complex place where “Probe sense respond” is in most cases a better strategy than having a precise model (because if I got complexity thinking right there can be no precise model of a complex system).

  4. Thanks for that Sacha – I wasn’t aware of that paper. I’ll go hunting! And I think you’re spot on about probe-sense-respond being a better strategy for engaging with reality than trying to build a precise model. And that sparks further thinking about what a Clean Language facilitator is doing when they are “modelling” a client’s reality…

  5. As I tend to sway more towards the ‘p’ of Myers brigg, this makes me lean toward vagueness. I have been trying to map out which jobs provided structure, and feel that I am more efficient in working environments when a structure is in place. It feels like as prioritise our in place I don’t need to spend time making decisions about structure, which lets my mind focus on other decisions. Trying to balance this when not in a work routine feels strange. I love planning, put it is moving from planning to action where I become stuck, I seem to go back to looking for ways to re-plan, rather than plan, do, review it becomes plan, review, change plan, review.

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