Yellow: it’s the color of caution. (That is, unless you live in Alabama, where it apparently signals blow every other car’s doors off trying to make it through this traffic light.) Yellow flag words, then, are verbal indicators of the need to probe for deeper meanings before moving further into conversation. If we don’t clarify these words or phrases, we can make mental leaps that quickly morph into misunderstandings. Consider:
“I can’t get that report to you by Friday.” This statement might seem clear on its face, but it could actually have several meanings, such as:
- I want to get the report to you, but I don’t have the time.
- I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to write it.
- I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to submit it.
- I don’t want to get the report to you.
If you’re the person counting on this report, imagine your response to each of these interpretations. Three of them are about barriers. A bit more discussion might reveal that you and the other person both value the work, and then you can brainstorm about ways to remove or maneuver around the obstacles. The fourth reply, however, would likely make your blood boil. The relational impact and the possible solutions vary widely based on which response the other person actually intends.
Some other examples of yellow flag words or phrases include:
- “I’m not ready to take that step.” (What does ready look like for you?)
- “I don’t feel supported in my decision.” (What kind of support are you counting on?)
- “When the time comes, I’ll know what to do.” (When will that be?)
When there’s ambiguity around the meaning of words, ask an open-ended question. You’ll find out what your conversation partner does and does not mean, and you might also prompt some new awareness in that person around the power of her verbiage.
An ounce of curiosity is much less costly than an assumption that escalates into unhealthy conflict.