Yes, that’s a reference to I Love Lucy, so let me explain—Damn! There I go again, explaining instead of simply saying what I mean. Do you increasingly find yourself in that scenario? I do, especially in workplace discussions that make me want to pull my hair out (and I’m bald!).
Over the last few years, I have become much more sensitive to the “explaining” phenomenon now almost ubiquitous in the modern workplace. Here, for instance, is someone trying to explain more than they need to—or should. Over there is someone interrupting a colleague to offer an alternate explanation, but the result is a devaluing of the colleague’s perspective. Today’s explanatory exertions remind me of some other annoying communication techniques: “Let me see if I can capture what you just said,” and “We’re not making progress, so let’s each come back with the right message tomorrow.” (As for the latter, it infuriates me when an individual uses “we” to say that a message wasn’t understood. It’s just an indirect admission that the speaker doesn’t know how to deal with the issue.)
Explaining has become the communications device of cowards. It’s used when people don’t agree with something, or can’t articulate something better, or have even more offensive motives.
Here are five types of explanations that drive me crazy:
- Older-’splaining (That’s right, but not quite). Usually committed by an explainer with more experience or age—and less tact. A colleague once used this approach on me at a board meeting. He squirmed in his seat while I spoke, then blurted, “What you said is sort of technically correct, but let me put in proper terms what we are really doing.” He proceeded to express the same ideas as I had, but with a different (in his mind, better) vocabulary. My face went beet red. Surely there was a more tactful way for my colleague to clarify what I said.
- Smarter-’splaining (I know more than you). A host of new discriminatory practices are cropping up based on variables not covered under Title VII: attractiveness, experience, education and more. People discriminate against others due to their level of education (“Oh, do you have a Ph.D.?”) as well as where they were educated (“Isn’t that a state school?”). I have heard someone offer intelligent insights on a subject, only to be interrupted by an Ivy League graduate whose riff on those insights added no value to the discussion. Attending a great school is an accomplishment, but skip the sense of entitlement—you don’t necessarily know more and your explanations don’t automatically matter more. (Haven’t you ever seen Good Will Hunting?) There’s simply no place for discrimination of any kind in the workplace.
- Re-’splaining (Pride and prejudice and inattention). You can become a victim of this phenomenon with someone who doesn’t know how to listen. Let’s say you meet with a colleague to present your reasons for making a specific decision. But while you’re doing so, your colleague is paying you no mind, having already formed an opinion and assuming that yours cannot possibly be right. Before you finish, your colleague begins to argue—not noticing that you are both actually in agreement. Next time, send your thoughts in an e-mail and don’t waste time meeting in person with this kind of explainer.
- Adult-’splaining (You don’t belong at the grown-ups’ table). Working with people is hard enough, but people who engage in one-upmanship with their explanations make it significantly harder. If you have devised a reasonable argument, for example, it’s rude and condescending for an opponent to launch a counterargument with, “That’s great, but here’s what you missed/forgot/didn’t consider.” Pejorative tones are just plain wrong—even if you hadn’t considered all elements of the issue.
- Man-’splaining (Thanks, dearie, but actually...). The most egregious of annoying explanations. I see it all the time, have been guilty of it myself, and my appreciation for its victims has grown exponentially. Aside from the condescension, a major problem with man-splaining is that men get things wrong; our biggest downfall is that we think we know it all. Until we focus on listening to others, we are just not equipped with the necessary competencies. More often we need things explained to us, rather the other way around.
You may have your own way of dealing with these behaviors but here is a tip for overcoming them before you resort to an outburst or, worse yet, violence—Try the soft-spoken method. The world of conflict resolution teaches us that individuals who feel the need to talk over others can easily be conditioned. Try making your voice softer as they get louder or more obnoxious. Within a few syllables they will note their heightened volume and enter the shame mode. ‘Splainers, you have been warned.
Do these behaviors anger you as they do me? How do you encounter different types of “explaining” in the workplace? What do you do to mitigate the effects (intended or unintended) of these behaviors? How do you use your competencies to make a ’splaining-free workplace?