Beth Wonson & Company

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Empowering Executives, Emerging Leaders, Teams, & Individuals For Over 20 Years

Huh? Drop a hint?


Hinting. Next to sarcasm, hinting is usually the least effective style of communication.  Just a few days ago I was in the car with friends. One person was going on and on about how it annoys her to no end that a family member calls her nearly every day right when she walks in the door from work. At the end of the day all my friend wants to do is sit down and chill for a bit. Not talk on the phone!   I asked her how she thought she might handle this and she replied, “Oh I’m going to drop some hints”.   Huh? Drop a hint? She went on to say something like, “I’m going to just mention that I’m really tired after work and like to nap for 20 minutes before dinner and see if they get the hint not to call me between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m.   Really?   Why is it so challenging to come right out and say, “Hey, I love hearing from you but I’d appreciate it if you would call me after 6:00 p.m.? I like to just decompress for a little while when I get home. Thank you so much”.   I will tell you why. We are afraid to risk being hurt. And since we are afraid to risk being hurt ourselves, we project that fear on to others and we create a story that providing information about how we need and want to be treated will hurt others. We tell ourselves, “I don’t want to hurt their feelings”.   In the workplace, the same holds true. I know so many managers who prefer to hint about how they want things done. Here is an example of a scenario and how hinting not only doesn’t help, it actually further convolutes the situation.   Let’s say Susie is 5 minutes late to work almost every day. But Susie has several great attributes that make her a valued employee, so the tardiness hasn’t been addressed. The manager is getting flack from her boss who happens to see Susie coming in late most days resulting in pressure to be sure Susie arrives on time.    The manager, Rachelle, doesn’t want to risk upsetting Susie so instead of directly discussing the persistent tardiness with Susie, “Hey, You are doing a great job, but I noticed you are having a hard time getting in and being ready to go by 8:00 a.m. The company needs you to be here on time consistently. Is there a specific reason why that isn’t possible?” Rachelle drops hints and hopes Susie will pick up on them.   Hint number one: Rachelle shares loudly at the coffee machine, “It sure is tough getting in here right at 8:00 a.m. but I do it everyday”.   The Result: Susie is empathetic to Rachelle’s struggle and wishes Rachelle didn’t have it so tough.   Hint number two: An email is sent to the whole team on a number of important topics. At the tail end is a statement reinforcing time and attendance, “And remember, it is important to be in on time each day”. The Result: Susie reads the email, but is completely focused on the important information that impacts her job directly. The hint is missed again.   Hint number three: Rachelle tells Susie, “I certainly don’t mind if people are a little late, but you know my boss Bob, he is such a stickler. He brought up in a meeting that he notices some people are in late every day. He is really such a nag”.  The Result:  Susie feels bad for people who work for Bob. It must be stressful to work for such a stickler.   Do these examples give you a picture of how ineffective the hinting process is?   Hints aren’t effective because generally they are delivered casually at a time that is after the fact. Our brains don’t easily connect what is being said with a previous event unless there is a bridge (or context) provided.   If Rachelle addresses the issue directly with Susie, “It sure is tough getting in here right at 8:00 a.m. but I do it every day. I noticed you are struggling to get here on time Susie. And it is required to be successful. Do you have thoughts on what you can do differently to get here on time?” not only does Susie have context, but there is opportunity to dialogue about the real issue at hand.   The all-staff email is not only unsuccessful as a hint; it is a distraction to every single person who is getting to work on time. They read it and either feel resentment that they are being scolded for something they are not doing or they begin trying to guess who the hint is for. Either way, hinting to one person in an all-staff email is a distraction to people who are already doing the right thing.   Using your boss, or your board of directors, or your spouse, as a scapegoat so you don’t have to put on your big girl/boy pants and be clear actually undermines your leadership. You are setting yourself up as a powerless victim. Do that enough and people begin to believe you.   The moral of the story is that being clear with people about boundaries and what is needed (both personally and at work) is empowering them to be successful. Evidence shows hinting, and hoping people take hints, is highly ineffective. With hinting you actually take away the opportunity for others to show up effectively, while disempowering yourself by increasing your opportunity for anger and resentment.

HINTS being clear with people about boundaries and what is needed (both personally and at work) is empowering them to be successful

Everyone who is important to me in my life gets the same information early in the relationship - I don’t take hints. I just don’t. And newsflash – neither do most people.

The next time you are tempted to drop a hint to change someone else’s behavior, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What reaction do I fear? And why?
  2. How can I take the hint I’m tempted to give and rework it into a direct statement?
  3. What am I willing to risk if the person does what I most fear they will do (i.e. where is my line in the sand on this relationship?)

Where are you dropping hints and then becoming resentful? Try being direct, clear and kind and see what changes. And while you are practicing this help out your family, friends, and co-workers by reminding them, “I don’t take hints”.

Life will be easier, communication will be clearer and you will be empowered to treat people and be treated the way you most desire.

Need help practicing clear, direct communication at work or home? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me!

Is your team struggling with long, unproductive meetings or confusion about roles and responsibilities? Contact me for either one-on-one executive coaching or team development, or both!