Your boss throws out an idea like, “What if we lowered our first response time for customer emails?” or makes a passing comment about liking another brand’s new video marketing strategy. What exactly are you supposed to do with this information? Should you type up a job listing to hire another person for your Support team and order a new video camera?
Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, once heard a story (which may or may not be true) about a CEO who noted there were no blueberry muffins while making small talk before a breakfast meeting began. It wasn’t until years later that the CEO realized there were blueberry muffins at every meeting he attended from that day forward because of that comment.
Sutton goes on to say that leaders “make offhand comments and don’t consider that their employees may interpret them as commands.” He urges leaders not to waste their employees’ time by inadvertently creating unnecessary work with this kind of miscommunication.
I’d argue this applies to relationships without power imbalances as well. Communicating ideas effectively is important for coworkers, couples, and even friends.
For example, my husband Josh loves to dream, and I love to execute on tasks. When he throws out an idea, I can’t help but create an instant to-do list in my mind, whether he wants me to or not. Sutton suggests avoiding miscommunications by prefacing an idea with something like, “Please don’t do anything; I am just thinking out loud.”
Josh and I gave this advice a shot. To avoid stressing me out, he’d say, “I’m in my mental sandbox” before sharing a pie-in-the-sky idea. There are two rules in the mental sandbox: 1.) Anything goes. 2.) No action is required. Josh can ask me what it would be like if he were the mayor of our city, and I don’t have to skip a beat sipping my hot tea to think about how we’d afford campaign posters.
The mental sandbox was a helpful tool for us, but it didn’t always work. When Josh would throw out ideas like, “What if we spent less time on our phones?” or “What if we changed up our diet?” I knew he wasn’t making demands — but these weren’t entirely hypothetical ideas, either. We were still running into mismatched expectations about what needed action and what was just daydreaming, and this was a source of conflict and confusion for both of us.