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Use concrete with intention

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Use concrete with intention

The 72-72 rule.  

It’s succinct, specific and gets stamped into your memory—once you learn what it is.  

The 72-72 rule says that the City of Charleston should be “as good a place for tourists who visit for 72 hours as it is for residents who live here for 72 years.”

When he took office, Charleston City Council member Mike Seekings invented this rule as his governing principle.

Precise phrases like the 72-72 rule are better for the brain than glittery generalities. That’s because it’s easier for us to picture concrete things in our mind. We also have a simpler time of explaining them to others and building a shared understanding.

By contrast, glittery generalities and abstract ideas are subject to our individual interpretations.  For example, consider the phrase “enjoyable experience.” One person’s pleasure could be another person’s pain.

Concrete words and phrases express what we know through our six senses, explains Cheryl Stephens, the plain language writer, editor, and trainer at Plain Language Wizardry, in her insightful LinkedIn post, A Slab of Concrete Words.  Anything concrete exists in a material or physical form.

Time tends to verge between concrete and abstract. Time isn’t physical matter yet if you’re a Westerner you have a strong understanding of time periods, such as 72 hours and 72 years.

And there’s the rub to quote Shakespeare’s character Hamlet.

Concrete phrases also can serve as a type of concrete barrier, dividing people and things into categories, with possibly unintended consequences.  

For example, when one of my neighbors and I heard Councilman Seekings explain his 72-72 rule at a community meeting, we both determined that he wasn’t speaking to us. Nor for that matter was he probably governing with our interests in mind. And as a result, we felt like outsiders, marginalized compared with the tourists and the long-time residents.

We reached the same conclusion, but for slightly different reasons. My neighbor splits her time throughout the year between Charleston and Cincinnati. I moved to Charleston as a middle-aged adult so it’s unrealistic I’ll live here 72 years unless scientists make major strides in increasing life expectancy.

What’s the point of this rant?

Concrete words and phrases are better than glittering generalities with this exception: Unless your intent is to be exclusionary, don’t be so specific that you end up accidentally eliminating people who could be vital stakeholders for you and your initiatives.

Now how do you prevent people from feeling like they’re on the outside looking in?

Use these three questions as stepping stones the next time you’re crafting concrete language:

  1. How large and inclusive do you want or need your tent to be? For example, President Lyndon Johnson probably considered this question or a version of it before he famously said about FBI Director Herbert Hoover: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
  1. What’s your downside risk of excluding individuals or groups? For example, if you’re explicitly excluding individuals or a category or department of people, such as IT or HR business partners, think about whether you will want to leverage their skills, expertise or relationships in the future.  If they feel like they’ve been assigned to your out group, they may resist helping you when you seek them out.
  1. How would you feel if the tables and chairs were turned and you lost your seat at the table? Keep in mind that social pain is as real as physical pain, and can last longer, as discovered by Dr. Matthew Lieberman, Dr. Naomi Eisenberger and other researchers.  (See What’s your tolerance for pain at work for more about this.)

You need to step carefully when you’re trying to communicate clearly and concretely as well as be open and inclusive.  

That’s why it’s important to be intentional. Think first, act carefully and when in doubt, test to determine how others may perceive your ideas.

Are these steps concrete enough for you?  If not, comment and let me know.