The word intelligence comes from a Latin derivation meaning “entering through the lines.” People are always using their intelligence to enter or read into the lines of what you are saying or not saying. They fill in the white spaces between your words almost automatically, because it gives them a sense of understanding, control, or security. In the caveman days, gossip served a similar function. It was information that gave tribes the sense of understanding the meaning of things. They could “connect the dots,” which helped their survival.
Today, gossip or “making stories” serves a similar purpose. Whether you like it or not, people will always put a personal spin on everything you say, and they do it almost instantaneously. Are their interpretations positive, accurate, or constructive? Probably not! Here is an illustration of what usually happens when you speak and others “listen.”

An Executive says about a possible acquisition:
“We are looking into all kinds of possibilities that will help us maintain our viability and profitability.”

How people fill in the white space:
“I didn’t think we were in such trouble. This may be worse than I thought. I wonder if I should start looking elsewhere.”

“If we are looking to purchase another company, that means there will be layoffs and my job could be in jeopardy.”

“Oh no, with this going on in the executive office, they will never have time to focus on my project. This is going to hurt my career advancement.”

If you don’t fill in the white space, your people will, and you will be reacting to all the misinterpretation.
Here is how you can fill in the white space with what is positive, accurate, and constructive:

An Executive says about a possible acquisition:
“We are looking into all kinds of possibilities that will help us maintain our viability and profitability. Right now there are a few exciting opportunities. Now, because of due diligence, I can’t tell you exactly what. But what I can tell you is our process. We have a small team of seasoned executives who are looking at all the facts. This will be a well-thought-out and informed decision.

Our criteria in the decision are that we:
First, don’t interrupt our day-to-day business and focus. Second, that we keep all the talent here. Third, we want this to be growth for you and the company. We want you to be a part of any changes that go on. We plan to have a monthly lunch meeting to answer your questions and keep you informed. Contact me or my office if you have questions.”

In this scenario, the leader tried to fill in the white space to the best of his or her ability, answering many of the questions people may have. If you can respond to the “unasked questions,” you build credibility and security. People won’t have to “create their own stories” as much.

White Space
The following visual will help you see and remember the process.
The bold line indicates what you said:

“ ”

The minus or hyphen signs indicate what gets filled in quickly by others. Remember, they are entering through the lines to grasp what it seems you have said. Again, it is usually inaccurate and judgmental, and rarely gives you the benefit of the doubt.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

“ ”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Positive signs indicate what you say when you proactively fill in the white space with accurate and positive data, talking about opportunities.

“ ”

White space is always going to get filled in by others. You can plan ahead and inform your people of what you know and prevent too many misunderstandings. If you don’t tell people what is going on, they will assume nothing is going on.

Questions and Action Applications:

• Explain to your staff how filling in white space is natural and how you want them to become conscious of how they are doing it.
• Ask, “What are the ways you can become more aware of how you and others fill in the white space?”
• Challenge yourself and others on some of their assumptions as you and they fill in the white space.
• Constantly ask for feedback about your communications. Ask, “What did you hear?” Then re-clarify.
• Ask your team to let you know if they are not hearing enough from you and are beginning to fill in white space negatively.
• Evaluate if their interpretations are Positive, Accurate, and Constructive. This is called a PAC interpretation. If what you read or hear is not accurate and constructive, make sure you clarify.
• Remember, white space is going to get filled in by others anyway. You can be preventative and informing by telling your people what you know.
• Use the term white space so it remains a viable image and concept for your team.

Author's Bio: 

Reldan S. Nadler, Psy.D. MCC is a psychologist, master executive coach, corporate trainer and CEO of True North Leadership, Inc, an executive and organizational development firm. This article is excerpted from his new book, Leaders’ Playbook-How to Apply Emotional Intelligence-Keys to Great Leadership.
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