“Ask questions and share your suggestions,” they said. “It will boost your career,” they said.
But then, when you put yourself out there, you got a response equivalent of taking a mouthful of lukewarm coffee—disappointing. What went wrong? Why did people respond in such a noncommittal way?
Sometimes, when faced with an immediate decision or response, people use vague responses to ward off having to give an answer, says communication expert Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. But the problem is that those vague responses often have more than one meaning that can leave you confused about how your input received, or the next steps you should take, she says.
“People don’t [always] say what they really mean because they’re afraid of the reaction, if they were to be completely honest,” she says. While that’s often unfounded, it’s also true that vague responses can be interpreted different ways. Here are four common vague responses you may encounter from coworkers or bosses, what they may mean, and how to figure out the subtext:
“Let me think about it”
This common response could be really good news—or not, says organizational psychologist Russell Thackery. Essentially, you’ve posed a real challenge to the status quo or an idea that the other person thinks should be incorporated or you’ve just been given a dismissive non-response.
Figuring out the true meaning starts with contextual cues, Thackeray says. If the exchange is between a supervisor and employee, the supervisor may actually have been trained to pause and take some time before coming to a decision, he adds. Or, rather than admit that they don’t know the answer, your supervisor or co-worker may be stalling instead of admitting they don’t know the answer. If the power dynamic is reversed and the person giving the vague response holds a lower or equal position in the company to the person doing the asking, there may be some politics at play and the individual may feel like they can’t say “no.”
Take a look at the power relationship first, then consider tone of voice or body language. Does the person seem excited by the request or proposal? Are they showing interest in additional detail or exploring how they can make the situation work? If so, they may be truly thinking about it, he says. If body language or tone indicate a desire to exit the conversation, that’s a clue that “let me think about it” may be an excuse.
“I’d love to, but I’m busy”
Being busy is a common excuse. When someone uses it in place of “no,” there may be different meanings at play, says Alissa Carpenter, an employee development coach. If you get this answer more than once or twice, it could mean that the person is blowing you off, she says.
On the other hand, there may be something deeper, Headlee says. Look at the types of invitations the person is declining. Perhaps the individual doesn’t want to go to Friday night happy hour with the team because they have young children at home but they’d be happy to be invited to a lunch one day. Or they may not be comfortable in crowded areas, but welcome one-on-one get-togethers.
“Sometimes, they just don’t feel like they have a good justification for saying ‘no,’” she says. In many instances it’s best to just leave well enough alone, but if you feel that there may be extenuating circumstances causing them saying “no,” consider putting the ball in their court to make decisions about gatherings or participation in activities.
Is what you said really interesting? Or have you just been insulted? It could go either way with this vague response, Thackeray says. The key to the actual meaning typically lies in history, context, and micro-expressions, he says. Sometimes, “interesting” is a verbal tic. That could be a habit or a cultural inflection. “Fillers are the dam between human beings,” he says. Such words may fill space or provide a non-confrontational response to a statement.
You can also look at your history of interactions with this person or their history with others. Do they tend to be passive-aggressive or dismissive? That might mean you’re being put off. But perhaps the most powerful clue is the micro-expression—that flash of emotion on the individual’s face in reaction to your words. “If your boss is saying “that’s interesting” and they think you’re a moron, it’ll show,” he says. “It’s easier to say, ‘that’s interesting’ [which may mean] ‘ask me again in half an hour because I’ll know how to rearrange my face carefully into a supportive expression.’”
“Let’s take this offline”
This response typically happens in a meeting. It could mean, “This is a conversation best handled privately,” or “Let’s not waste everyone’s time with this.” It could also mean, “You need more information about this topic, and I can’t share that in front of everyone.”
Again, expression and tone are critical to decoding vague messages, Carpenter says. But this one may require follow-up. “You might want to hold off until the end of the meeting and then talk to that person one-on-one,” she says. It’s a good idea to follow-up in person because then you’ll likely get the more direct response you were seeking. But, unless the issue is pressing and needs to be discussed in front of the group, take a break and pursue your answer later.
While clear communication is important in the workplace, vagueness—intentional or not—creeps in from time to time. Draw on your history and observation skills to discern exactly what is being said.
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