A hidden element in improving the quality of our attention and effectiveness may be tied to vague thinking. The connection between thinking and action, while often overlooked, can reveal important blind spots.
In working with professionals, I’ve come to experience the effects of our digital age: Fragmented attention causes us to skim and scan instead of reading, multitasking causes us to speed through tasks rather than experience them, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) produces reflexive thoughts and actions.
Our Tranquilized Obviousness
This digital mentality has come to cloud our mind and cultivate a tranquilized obviousness, a complacent, autopilot state of being. We tolerate confusion, avoid details, and often do not experience the simple pleasure of completing a task. Accepting vagueness from ourselves or others can confuse us and undermine our actions.
We can learn to recognize the source of complacency, which typically takes three forms.
The first is the primacy of problem-solving: We reduce thinking to transactions that seek answers to solve problems. We endeavor to find solutions before conducting a true inquiry into or experiencing the situation. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.
The second source of complacency is reflexive thinking, which lacks questioning completely. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts, we are stymied because no scrutiny has taken place.
This final issue involves assumptions. We are simply unaware of how much we assume, and we neither pause to consider that we are relying on any assumptions nor do we question them.
Learning theorist and author Chris Argyris has created a tool called the “Ladder of Inference” that clarifies this dynamic and the related reflexive loop, thus revealing how our beliefs screen the data we both select and avoid.
Three Kinds of Vagueness and Related Costs
The etymology of “vague” comes from the Latin “wandering.” It shows up in our language and thinking as cloudy and imprecise, enabling a tranquilized obviousness. We enable “wandering.” I’ve discovered that vagueness surfaces as tranquilized obviousness in three common forms: surface or lazy thinking, lacking specifics and lacking accuracy.
1 – Surface or Lazy Thinking Costs Competency.
Here, thinking is limited. At our very best, we understand something at the surface thinking level. For instance, we might say that COVID-19 is just like the common flu. This is not untrue, but it is also not wholly true. COVID-19 is a virus like the flu, but it is much more efficient in its transmission; therefore, it is more dangerous. Moreover, it is a new virus, so a lot about it remains unknown.
We may also employ lazy thinking, which amounts to whatever comes to mind, our reflexive ideas, or our thoughts. We might believe arguments supported by people we admire without further examination. The impulsive or impatient among us simply repeat plausible answers that readily come to mind.
Surface or lazy thinking lacks the rigor of scrutiny and analysis. This enables glibness, platitudes, and hyperbole bolstered by stock phrases or general, ambiguous statements.
- Lazy thinking costs us competency: when we are questioned, we often lack the facts or information to test assumptions and expand our knowledge. We become ignorant.
2 – Lacking Specifics Costs Effectiveness.
The key to strong persuasion and effective communication relies on a relationship to and use of language that honors specific and vivid details. For instance, each of the following pairs includes a general and specific item:
many = 500 to 1,000;
early = 5 a.m.;
hot = 90 degrees Fahrenheit;
most = 79.5%;
very rich = a millionaire;
soon = 7 p.m., Tuesday; and
color = navy blue.
Consider this statement: Officials are monitoring this situation very closely, and I can promise that we shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the situation is resolved in a way that is fair to all the parties involved.
Listening to this statement ought to raise alarm bells. Despite the impression of taking action to do something specific, this speaker here has not promised to do anything at all.
Which “officials” are monitoring? What are the appropriate measures? What do we mean by “very closely” or “fair” and for which “parties” are we speaking? Here the specific details matter as much as the context for them. Without this level of clarity, we can escape being held accountable.
Being specific is powerful because it allows us to picture details in specific situations. It also invites accountability for what we see and say. Others can now verify our claims, which develops credibility that leads to trust.
When we are vague, our communication is weak. We allow for multiple interpretations, confusion, and misunderstanding, which sow doubt. We perpetuate inaction and avoid being held accountable by claiming any interpretation that allows us to escape scrutiny.
Altogether, being specific develops the credibility that engenders the trust required to coordinate action effectively.
- Lacking specifics costs us effectiveness: without specific details, we gloss over items, miss important signs, and signals, and make unnecessary missteps that take time to clean up. We become unreliable.
3 – Lacking Accuracy Costs Direction.
Being accurate demands a level of presence, focus, and discipline that gets to the bottom of any matter. Saying that we are overweight is different from stepping onto a scale with a specific number.
Think about your relationship with math or your CPA. Both relationships require rigor—math requires a level of precision, and accountants usually require detail. Such situations that demand accuracy can become annoying, and even reveal painful truths.
Being vague can soothe our pain and comfort us. It’s easy to say “I am overweight” but not by how much, to avoid math and take a guess, or to let the CPA handle the details. But the cost is a disciplined ability to obtain an accurate view that develops foundation and direction.
- Lacking accuracy costs us direction: without accuracy, we cultivate cloudy thinking that lacks precise information to diagnose situations, assert claims, connect dots, or predict action. We become lost.
Antidote to Vagueness: A Habit of Questioning
The primary culprit of vagueness is that we haven’t cultivated a “habit of questioning” that interrupts our tranquilized obviousness to enable clear thinking.
Thinking lets itself be. As philosopher Hannah Arendt suggests, thinking involves “cultivating the habit of questioning whatever comes to pass, or that attracts our attention.”
Common forms of vagueness delude us into thinking that we are thinking when, in fact, we are comforted by initial evidence or the fruits of wishful thinking. At best, what we claim as thinking involves managing our old thoughts, confirming our beliefs, or analyzing agreeable evidence.
We lack a habit of questioning that clarifies assumptions, discards outmoded beliefs, and makes space for new thoughts. Whatever the reason, when we stop questioning, we dismantle the mechanism of thinking.
Thinking opens space for new thoughts. Our habit of questioning acknowledges the subjective “experiences,” beliefs, and assumptions that influence how we observe or interpret evidence.
Cultivating space for new thoughts is the goal of clear thinking. A clear thinker is open to details, specifics, and new information because they begin with the premise of “I do not know.”
— Cultivate space by pausing before speaking or responding. Ask yourself: How did I arrive at this solution? What might I be assuming or avoiding? What questions might others ask of me?
— Cultivate a habit of questioning. Assume that we live in concealed assumptions, and learn to listen for and reveal vagueness and biases. Notice impediments that reveal how we question, interpret, and accept evidence and facts. The habit of questioning our own assumptions offers better questions that surface others’ assumptions.
— Cultivate a beginner’s mind (and here) to observe experiences, and reveal, identify, and set aside any projection, resistance, impediment, or embellishment. In time, we can approach situations openly and newly.
Arriving at Clear Thinking
Most importantly, clear thinkers evolve. With a habit of questioning, we can release outmoded views and do not settle for static beliefs or faulty assumptions.
Our focus on accuracy and specific details will begin to invite penetrating questions that interrupt our tranquilized obviousness and cultivate different views.
Additionally, from an aesthetic perspective, details bring us closer to the simple pleasures that make up the creative and complex nature of life. We learn to appreciate the subtle and creative spaces that reveal the elegance of life as we experience our moment-to-moment living.
Finally, clear thinkers become present to new possibilities by questioning what they think they know. By embracing a beginner’s mind and humility, they normalize the very questioning that cultivates wisdom.
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.