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Specificity principle

Principles > Specificity principle

Principle | How it works | So what?


1. When you make specific statements, I will either fully understand or reject what you say.

2. When you make non-specific statements, I will fill in the gaps.

How it works

Being specific

When we are specific in what we say, we seek to remove ambiguity, communicating completely and precisely.

Specific language uses words that have single meaning and uses complete sentences, leaving nothing to the imagination.

Being non-specific

When we use specific statements, the other person will assess the alignment of what we say with what their believe, their internal schema and so on. If they do not match, then they may well reject what we say. This may well include throwing the baby out with the bathwater as they not only reject one part of our argument but everything else we say.

The more specific we are, the greater the opportunity for rejection. The reverse is also true: the more general, uncertain and vague we are, the more difficult it is to reject or deny what we say.

Attempts at clarification

When we are given non-specific statements, we will try to clarify these, making them more specific. Thus, consider this simple sentence:

There is a need for good work. 

In this sentence, it is not clear what the need is, what the work is, who needs it (and why), who will do the work and so on. Yet it is a valid statement and grammatically correct. To make specific sense of it, however, we need to make assumptions and add further detail, substituting our own specificity for the lack of clarity in the statement.

When things are vague, people feel a lack of closure. Their need for completion will thus cause them to add further elements to complete a story that makes full sense.

Putting themselves in the story

When you talk about other people, and particularly when you talk generally about them, the other person will substitute themselves into the story.

So what?

When you want to get clear and specific communications to people, use clear and exact language. Then question them carefully to check that they have fully understood.

To get someone to accept without question what you are saying, talk in vague, general terms which the other person can clarify into their own specific circumstances. Leave out who does things, what they do, how they do it, what happens as a result and so on. The other person will fill in to best fit their situation.

When others are non-specific, question them more closely, probing for further detail, perhaps using Socratic questioning methods. Look at what they omit and what they assume.

See also

Questioning techniques, Use of Language

Empathy, Identity, Alignment principle, Completion needs

Theories about meaning, Theories about how we think about ourselves, Theories about how we understand people

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