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Subtext: Friend or Foe

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Subtext: Friend or Foe
(click for podcast version)

The Space Between

Implicit Confusion / Explicit Clarification explored the pitfalls of not fully and clearly expressing something; leaving nothing to interpret. We looked at this from the speaker’s perspective, in terms of being explicit and not implying what needs to be stated clearly. Implications are fraught with interpretation, and interpretation is fraught with our own worldviews and baggage.

Looking at this issue from the perspective of the listener we may have far more power to keep the communication on track. Another, more common name for implicit meaning is subtext. Subtext does exist. We can’t totally ignore its existence, and yet this is an area that creates enormous confusion and conflict. We know subtext is there, we feel a need to fill it in, and this is the allure of assumptions.

Of the Three Strikes of Communication,” Assumption is strike number one for a reason. It seems we get most of our daily aerobic exercise jumping to conclusions. The conclusions follow premises we often create in the space between the lines. These are the sneaky assumptions; the ones that feel like educated guesses. The education in this case is our general life experience. So assumption number one is that we can adapt general life experience to a specific situation with accuracy.

This follows quickly with projections as strike two, as we put ourselves in the place of the person speaking or writing. Again, this is a very common thing to do, as we are trying to “relate.” I’ve often referred to this as the “if it were me saying or doing this, it would mean X” projection. If we plug that projection in as factual, we invent a subtext that is most likely inaccurate. If we continue to build on these assumptions and projections, filling in what we think the person meant or felt, we get further and further from the truth, and we end up changing their meanings quite a bit.

Let’s look at a simple example. Someone says, “when I walked into the room, 10 people walked out.” Listener number one is a very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of guy and fills in the subtext: “what a whiney victim,” and proceeds to color the rest of the speaker’s words as coming from that perspective. Listener number two is shy and easily intimidated and fills in the subtext: “he’s trying to scare me, saying he scared those others out of the room.” Listener two now colors the speaker’s words as coming from a bullying perspective. Two people created opposite subtexts from the same spoken words.

If a robot or a computer made this observation, we’d probably take it very literally, and not add subtext. When it’s a person making the observation, our busy little brains go to work asking and answering questions internally, and filling in all the subtext. We miss an enormous amount of actual communication this way. As listeners we have the opportunity to push the speaker for explicitness. We can look at the space between the lines, and not fill it in with assumptions or projections. We can check in, ask questions, and get actual information.

Real Subtext

As I said earlier, subtext does exist, and it can add another dimension of richness to communication. The trick is having accurate subtext. The only way to ensure this is looking at how you obtained the subtext. Obviously assumptions and projections don’t work. Checking in and getting explicit information is definitely accurate, but that’s not subtext. Subtext works a lot like context in terms of giving “meaning” to our communication. It becomes the canvas under the painting.

In an old article called “What Did You Say?” I talked about the differences between: “Can I help you?” [subtext: open question] “How can I help you?” [subtext: I can, but need to know how] and “What can I do to help you?” [subtext: I’d like to take an action to help you]. The differences indicate real subtext, and yet checking in still beats betting the farm on our assumptions.

The more we understand the dynamics between people, the more we have a tiny chance of getting subtext accurately. Is it about mirroring a trait we see in ourselves? Is it fulfilling a fear? Is it the childlike defense of a pre-emptive strike? When person A works really hard to keep her life organized, and person B doesn’t, their communication will be filled with subtext. When person C wants commitment from person D, a second of hesitation becomes subtext. Until we know these people we won’t know what that subtext is. Completely opposite interpretations are possible, as are a thousand in between.

This is why subtext is generally best used in literary and theatrical works. We want to suspend meaning and offer the audience ambiguous possibilities. In real life, this level of “drama” is a major obstacle to clean, accurate communication. We need to remember to draw the line between entertainment and real life communication. Drama doesn’t assist our relationships at home or at work, and often adds gasoline to the smallest flame. Being as literal and accurate as possible, and checking in along the way keeps our communication clean and keeps us out of the drama zone. It just takes that little extra bit of mindfulness and consciousness.

Want to learn more about how to become the best you possible?
 Come visit the web site, or better yet, contact me and see how we can design a program to fit your needs and desired outcomes.

     - Ian J. Blei


Quick Communication Tip

Let There Be Space

If you read between the lines, you’re not reading the lines. Between the lines there’s blank space. That blank space can be anything to anyone. This was a popular subject for artists during the 1960’s. A big blue box. What does it mean? It’s open to your interpretation. It can mean anything.

That is exactly the opposite of our purpose in communication. We are attempting to communicate something very specific. The more interpretation involved, the less we’ve successfully communicated. When there is space between the lines, let there be space. It is there to give you breathing room. It is the rest in the music. It is an opportunity to check in.

Want to learn more about how your communication can hold you back or catapult you forward?  Come visit the web site, or better yet, contact me and see how we can design a program to fit your needs and desired outcomes.


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