How to Sabotage Your Own Conversation

Now, mostly dead is slightly alive.
    In “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman.

Sometimes it’s just a verbal tic. But a significant group of generally smart professionals periodically shoot themselves in the foot with its use. They can resolve a problem, break it down into bits and pieces for a solid resolution–and even explain their rationale. But along the way their input loses its credibility for a simple reason: they don’t understand that hedges limit their credibility.

It’s not just the Upper Midwesterners who hedge, but New Yorkers, Virginians and even Californians. Furthermore, it’s not just women who do it: a surprising share of men do the same thing. This small behavior happens too frequently—and inevitably means…

we miss out on great ideas and highly creative solutions.

What’s hedging?
A hedge is a clause, word, hesitation or tone used to soften the impact of what’s being said. It may be an attempt to defer to the other person, to be polite or avoid bragging. The original motivation stems from caring about how one is perceived. Over the long term the hedge is habituated into speech and sound whenever there is concern about the other person’s perceptions. The response? A tune-out.

“This is kind of the way it is—I think.”  The tone in the hedge is usually soft with a sense of questioning built into the sound.

“This is right?” The intonation on the last word is a question with built-in pleading for agreement and acceptance.

Hedging can take the form of an adjective, an adverb or an entire clause, as in the following three examples from Wikipedia:

  1. There might just be a few insignificant problems we need to address. (adjective)
  2. The party was somewhat spoiled by the return of the parents. (adverb)
  3. I’m not an expert but you might want to try restarting your computer. (clause)

In contrast, effective business conversations explicitly emphasize the “fact-like” shape of language, both in conversation and presentation settings. Business people typically proclaim their version of the truth with an artful zeal that spells “charisma.” Of course, the tone can be bombastic, like a fundamentalist preacher, or just quietly, but certain and without any tonal hedging.

Fixing hedging
Most people who use hedging are both unaware of their linguistic behavior and ignorant of its negative impact.

So to the degree possible, plan your conversations. But set up a close friend or two to give you feedback on your linguistic behavior. Give them some examples of what to look for. And afterward, check for your success.

Real success will take some hard work because hedging is a deeply habituated practice. But the payoff can be very significant. Avoidance of hedging makes your talk more believable. It makes you a more credible professional.


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