Do you ever find yourself having conversations with team members or customers (particularly when complaint handling) and then they say to you at a later date, ” No, that’s not really what I meant!” and you realise that you have completely misunderstood them?

Or they misunderstand you; you’ve made a comment that’s been mis-interpreted?

How does this happen?

Because we all filter or delete information it can mean the information we share or receive, or questions we ask can be very general or vague, making it difficult for others to fully understand the question, issue or action required.

We are all inclined to generalise, exaggerate or distort situations by the language we use, and this can easily take us off track when we are communicating with others.

In order to overcome this, we often need to drill down to get specifics; to recognise the ‘fluff’ in our communications and learn the art of clarification or ‘ fluff busting’.

Fluff busting can help in three ways:

  1. To help us to say what we mean as precisely as possible
  2. To help us to understand as clearly as possible what other people mean
  3. To help other people to understand exactly what they really do mean

This is particularly important at times when trying to get to the bottom of something, or fully understand the other person, or when it might be tempting for the other person to only give you half the story.

Here are the four main areas of ‘fluff’ and ambiguity, and how to overcome them.

Generalisations, exaggerations and distortions

These include words like always, never, everyone, nobody. For example: “This happens every time!” Or, ’’Everyone else does this’. “I’ve told them 1000 times!”

You want to challenge with respect and probe/explore their sweeping statements.

The ideal response to this type of statement on paper might be ‘Really? Everyone? Always?’ but can come across as sarcastic or patronising if we’re not careful, so better to ask for some examples and gather the facts.

Abstract nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs

These are the words which are often used to describe feelings or expectations. The problem with these types of words is that they mean different things to different people.

With your team members, asking for help or giving explanations why they are doing/not doing what you need  saying for example, ‘I don’t feel confident to do that’, what is they are unsure of? If you ask them how they are getting on with a task or project and they respond ‘fine’, does that mean it’s all on schedule or is ‘fine’ just a cover up, when in fact they are struggling with it or not even started?

Another example might include throwaway comments such as ‘Fred was really unhelpful.’  So again, check what they mean by this or ask, ‘How specifically was he unhelpful?’

So, check for clarity – what do you mean by that?

Equally when setting your expectations, be specific. Rather than “you need to improve” or “I need that as soon as possible”, state what improvement you need to see, or a specific time you need it done by.

A customer may use abstract words to describe the type of service or response the customer is looking for, for example quick, quality, good fun, luxury, value for money.  What might be luxury to you may be very different for the customer; one person’s idea of value for money may be very different from somebody else’s.

Respond to these types of words by asking for examples of what constitutes good fun, value for money, etc, or ask what criteria they would use to define these things.


These are the words that we would use to compare one thing and another for example quicker, faster, cheaper, better, best, bigger, smaller.

In order to be useful, we need to know what things are being compared to and any measurement involved.

To put this into context an example from a customer might be ‘I’d hoped for something cheaper than that’, your response might be ‘What is your budget?’ Or your customer asks “Do you have anything bigger?” You need to identify how much bigger? Are they looking for something 10% bigger, twice the size or 10 times the size?!

Rules & Blocks

Rules are often self-imposed and may be determined by past experience, or our own sense of values.  These include statements like “I couldn’t possibly agree to that.’ Or “I must get this sorted today.”  What you want to do is to identify where the pressure or barrier is coming from, so use questions such as ‘What is preventing you?’ or ‘What would happen if you did/didn’t?’ these replies open up possibilities in the other person’s mind and can create a new awareness.

For example, you ask a team member to carry out a task and they reply ‘I can’t do that”. This could be for any number of reasons: Is this because they don’t know how to? In which case is it because they haven’t been shown, or they simply believe they won’t do it well due to their lack of confidence. They may believe they can’t do it due to lack of authority or access to the tools or resources to do it. Or they may simply say they can’t as they don’t have time. Each situation needs a different approach in the way you handle it.

A word of caution

This degree of precision would not be appropriate in every situation, so only use it when it is important to really understand other’s meaning. Remember the importance of maintaining rapport when you are using this technique; it is not to make people feel they are under interrogation.

This is one reason why you should try to avoid using the question ‘ why?‘ When people hear that question they often react on the defensive and looking for excuses or justifications. Each of the above examples work better by using what we call ‘ softeners’ where you start the question with expressions such as ‘ I’m wondering what…….’

So remember to cut through the fluff when you are:

  1. Asking for help or giving instructions
  2. Identifying customer needs and expectations
  3. Handling objections or responding to customer complaints
  4. Faced with objections, vague comments or excuses from team members

to ensure you are really clear on what you mean and you fully understand what other people mean.