Here is a little bit of psychology that most of us know intuitively. People hate vacuums. No not the kind that you use for cleaning your carpets…the kind that exist when there is an information void.
Our brains work overtime to fill in any vacuums that they encounter.
This is a good thing mostly since it has helped us survive, such as when one of our ancestors filled in this unknown, “hmmm….I’m not sure what the growling noise is, but I bet it’s not good so I better run.”
We fill in these blanks all the time – often at a subconscious level. In the 1930’s, Gestalt psychologist conducted a number of experiments that focused perception and filling in missing information. They named this phenomena “the law of closure” famously demonstrated by the Kanizsa Triangle where there are no triangles or circles in the image – yet that is what we see.
While filling in missing information has often helped us, it can also be very detrimental. Take for instance what would occur if your company made a statement to employees such as “we are going through some difficult times and some changes will be announced next week.”
Not knowing what those “changes” are, people will automatically tend to fill in the blank…and what do you think they will fill it in with? Positive thoughts on the future…probably not.
In fact, we can pretty much guarantee that different people will interpret this differently. Some positive, some negative, and others not even registering on their radar. Psychology shows us that ambiguous stimulus will most likely be translated into multiple perceptions by different people – based on their current emotions, past experience, personality make-up, and a variety of other factors.
People will also fill in the blanks based on information they can gather – thus, the “changes” are associated with “difficult times” so the conclusions they will draw will probably be focused on what they have seen or been part of with other changes in difficult times.
But what a company wants is to make sure that a large proportion of people are not filling in the information with negative or wrong information. For instance, the above statement probably would cause a number of people to go back and start talking about the “layoffs” that will probably occur next week – even though nothing of the sort was said.
So what does one do?
While we can never fully make sure that everything is 100% clear and absolutely understood – we can do things to mitigate the negative aspects of this:
1. Eliminate as much ambiguous information as possible – be as clear and complete as you can in both verbal and written communication
2. When communicating provide conclusions – instead of having your employees fill in the blanks, fill in the blanks for them. Fill in the “what does this information mean?” and “what will happen because of this?” questions in advance.
3. Make sure that the information being presented is understood – we tend to over complicate things when we focus on making sure people understand. Realize that simple is often better. Make sure to provide context and visuals to increase understanding.
4. Let people know what’s going on even when there isn’t anything going on – this is particularly true when people might be filling in blanks themselves because of other factors (hard financial times, changes in the industry, changes in workgroups, etc…).
5. Be honest – people have a built in lie detector that is pretty accurate. Make sure that you tell the truth and don’t try to hide things from people. Be upfront with them. If you don’t know something – make sure you let them know that you don’t know…but also give them some idea of what would happen with certain situations do occur.
Let me know what you think about this and your own thoughts or experiences with “filling in the ____” I love to hear stories about these types of miscommunication – so leave a comment below.