There are three questions that govern any (potential) business relationship. Sometimes they are asked out loud, more often not. In both instances they nevertheless require an answer:
1. Do you care about me?
Or are you just trying to sell me something with the sole goal of personal benefit.
2. Are you competent?
Or are you just trying to bluff your way into this domain and don’t you know anything more about it than I already do.
3. Can I trust you?
Or will you sell me down the river when you get the chance.
The fact is that most business conversation is directed at answering question 2. That’s because it’s easy to argue and let’s you do the talking.
If you want a client to answer the first question with a “yes”, you shouldn’t do much talking but a lot of listening instead. More difficult for most.
The third question seldom gets attention in a business conversation, but is always answered by the client quickly and is most determining for whether or not he will do business with you. So you’d better have a strategy there. Very difficult perhaps, but also very worth your efforts.
What’s your strategy and tactics for getting the answers you want?
There’s no doubt that we live in an age that quests for precise information. Precision can however be dangerous as it keeps us from imagining new possibilities. Vagueness on the other hand is a reminder that we don’t know the answer yet, as is nicely pointed out Jonah Lehrer.
Moreover, researchers from Stanford University have now highlighted another important point regarding vagueness: contrary to popular wisdom it can actually help improve performance!
Here is how it works. Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds. After following a strict diet you decide to weigh yourself: you’ve lost 4 pounds. That is progress towards the goal, but you’re not quite there, which feels disappointing. Result: you might become a little less motivated. In the Stanford experiment the opposite happens when people are provided with vague information:
“Our research suggests that, at times, vagueness has its merits. Not knowing precisely how they are progressing lets people generate positive expectancies that allow them to perform better. The fuzzy boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to distort that information in a favorable manner”
Too much precision in measuring progress can therefore have the unwanted effect of diminishing motivation to reach goals.
Further contributing to the case for vagueness is research from the Eastern Kentucky University: problem-solving ability is increased when relying on vague verbs to describe the problem. Domain-specific verbs namely inhibit analogical reasoning, making it less likely to discover useful parallels. Sometimes simply rewriting the problem in vague terms led to impressive improvements in the performance of subjects to come up with a solution.
So the next time you want to come up with a better solution to a problem or want to reach goals that are still far away, consider throwing some vagueness in the mix in order to improve performance.