The Case for Ambiguous Communication
The argument for mutual understanding and openness, while honorable, is incredibly naive. It
assumes that communicators actually want to achieve mutual understanding and that openness is
the preferred means toward that end. Unfortunately, that argument overlooks a very basic fact:
It's often in the sender's and/or receiver's best interest to keep communication ambiguous.
“Lack of communication" has become the explanation for every problem in an organization. If
empowered" workforce is unmotivated, it's a communication problem. If the
quality-improvement program fails to garner the promised benefits, it's a communication
problem. If employees ignore or abuse customers despite training that instructs them otherwise,
it's a communication problem.
We're continually hearing that problems would go away if we could “just communicate better."
Some of the" basic assumptions underlying this view need to booked at carefully.
One assumption is that better communication will necessarily reduce strife and conflict. But each
individual's definition of better communication, like his or her definition of virtuous conduct, be-
comes that of having the other party accept his or her views, which would reduce conflict at that
party's expense. A better understanding of the situation might serve only to underline the
differences rather than to resolve them. Indeed, many of the techniques thought of as poor
communication were apparently developed with the aim of bypassing or avoiding confrontation.
Another assumption that grows from this view is that when a conflict has existed for a long time
and shows every sign of continuing, lack of communication must be one of the basic problems.
Usually, if the situation is examined more carefully, plenty of communication will be found; the
problem is, again, one of equating communication with agreement.
Still a third assumption is that it is always in the interest of at least one of the parties to an
interaction, and often of both, to attain maximum clarity as measured by some more or less
objective standard. Aside from the difficulty of setting up this standard-whose standard? and
doesn't this give him or her control of the situation?-there are some sequences, and perhaps many
of them, in which it is in the interests of both parties to leave the situation as fuzzy and undefined
as possible. This is notably true in culturally or personally sensitive and taboo areas involving
prejudices, preconceptions, and so on, but it can also be true when the area is merely a new one
that could be seriously distorted by using old definitions and old solutions.
Too often we forget that keeping communications fuzzy cuts down on questions, permits faster
decision making, minimizes objections, reduces opposition, makes it easier to deny one's earlier
statements, preserves freedom to change one's mind, helps to preserve mystique and hide insecu-
rities, allows one to say several things at the same time, permits one to say
and helps to avoid confrontation and anxiety.