Alice and Bob have a recurring argument. Alice says something that confuses Bob. It can be an unqualified pronoun, an unsignaled change of topic, a lack of context, etc. With some difficulty Bob usually eventually figures out what was meant.

But when Bob says something to confirm what he thinks was meant ("By 'he' you meant Charlee or Dave? You mentioned both.") Alice feels it was obvious and disbelieves the attempt to explain the ambiguity that Bob is trying to resolve.

When Bob attempts to discuss the ambiguity Alice instead focuses on explaining what she meant in her own words. Without regard to how Bob put it and without acknowledging the ambiguity. Often this explanation simply recreates the ambiguity.

This frustrates Bob who is both trying to understand and have his communication needs understood. When pressed Alice will deny, apologize, and misquote but wont acknowledge the actual ambiguity or work to resolve it saying she doesn't understand it or doesn't believe it. Bob's attempts at explaining the ambiguity eventually work but not before hurt feelings develop.

They both seek to avoid this outcome but walking away before it reaches this stage never seems to work. It just leaves it to be picked up again later by either of them.

The typical result is Alice feels attacked and Bob feels ignored.

What are some effective strategies Alice and Bob can use to find a better outcome?

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    Are Bob and Alice both willing to implement suggestions here? My first inclination is to suggest that Alice simply answer the question that was directly asked of her ("I meant Dave"), but I'm assuming she's not willing to do this or there wouldn't be a problem to begin with. I ask that because if you're Bob and Alice has no desire to follow our suggestions, then we need to focus on things that Bob can do without her cooperation. – Kat May 30 at 18:04
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    @Kat Bob can only control Bob. Alice can only control Alice. Assume both will be given a chance to read answers. – candied_orange May 30 at 18:08
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    If Alice is involved and cooperating, could we get some insight into why she doesn't clarify when asked to? – Kat May 30 at 18:09
  • @kat Alice takes the question as a personal attack. “You’re trying to make me look stupid”. Etc. It’s an old argument and a sore spot. The defenses go up pretty fast. – candied_orange May 30 at 18:17

I think I might understand this a little. It rather depends on the relationship between Alice and Bob: a general solution won't exist. You've only given one example, which is a problem, but let's run with it:

Alice: ..... Charlie .... Dave .... and then he --

Bob (interrupting): By 'he' you mean Charlie or Dave? You mentioned both.

This is, to be clear, absolutely not Bob's only option. Alice is saying that asking this way (including explaining why Bob doesn't know) feels like an attack, like Bob is saying "you talk wrong" and I can kind of see her point.

Things Bob could do instead:

  • Wait until it's Bob's turn to talk. Perhaps it will be clear by then who "he" is -- some side mention of his brother or his wife or whatever will make everything clear and there will never be any need to ask.
  • If it's not clear, at the next natural point, take a guess and present it as such. "He Charlie?" Alice can agree, just really nod, and keep right on going, or say "No, Dave" and keep right on going. No explanation of why Bob needs to confirm this information or how Alice miscommunicated on the "he" front.
  • If Bob has misguessed and is corrected by Alice, and feels now that he is being told he's listening wrong, he could say "I was unsure, because you mentioned both." This depends on their relationship: how often they converse, who is the "senior" in their friendship or relationship, whether this pattern recurs elsewhere in their lives.

I talk a lot with someone who often can't find the word they want and just dump all the work onto me, without noticing.

So I want you to look at -- you know the thing? that we put on the thing? -- it needs to be adjusted and we could, I don't know, kind of, you know, check it and -- I don't have time today so is that something you can do?

Seriously. Since we talk a lot and this happens a lot, I will say "the thing that we put on the thing? that doesn't narrow it down much" or "you haven't given me any information." I am clearly saying "you're talking wrong." I wouldn't do that with someone I only talk to once a month, or with my aged mother, or someone much younger than me. I would instead ask clarifying questions. "What thing? Where do we put it?" without mentioning that they said something ridiculous as a first pass.

So for Bob and Alice, if they are adult-child-and-parent, or two neighbours who occasionally chat over the fence, or coworkers, or a married couple -- it makes a big difference. In most cases I would suggest sticking to short clarifying questions that do not explain the ambiguity or "go meta" about whether something was obvious or not. Stay focused on the conversation Bob and Alice are trying to have. In some cases, especially if Bob is starting to feel "now I'm the stupid one" or if Alice is snapping at Bob "try to keep up!" or "why do you ask me that sort of thing of course I mean Dave" then it may be appropriate to explain why Bob felt there was an ambiguity (not quite the same as insisting there is an ambiguity and trying to explain it.)

I do find that going over conversations afterwards and saying "you called me stupid" "no I didn't" "well you rolled your eyes and you also said 'I can't believe these questions' so that's the same" "no it's not you're just reading things into perfectly harmless comments" "no I'm not" and so on do not improve anything. They lead to at least one person claiming "I have to walk on eggshells around you I'm constantly afraid you're going to misinterpret what I say" or "it's exhausting to talk to you because you're very vague and ambiguous and expect me to figure out everything myself while you don't bother putting any thought into your sentences" but they don't actually reduce ambiguity or get people's conversational needs met.

In fact, the concept of communication needs or conversational needs is a very useful one here. If the purpose of the conversation is to exchange facts, the needs of the people are very different than if the purpose is to team-build, to create a plan together, to reassure, to comfort, or to persuade. I might suggest to Bob that discussing communication needs should happen at a higher level. Not "I need you to agree that saying 'he' after mentioning two different men (or boys) was ambiguous and I was right to be unsure who you meant" but "when we chat over breakfast I like to feel that you care whether or not I can follow your story" or "if we are going to plan this project and get it done, I need to be confident that we're referring to the same things when we say 'he' or 'soon' or 'agreed'." Talk about emotions and feelings and confidence, comfort, assurance, and support. Not about parts of speech or sentence length.


Just coming from experience not being a very focused listener; I think the easiest path is having Bob speak out loud what he understood and take the risk to look like an idiot if he's repeating or mistaken. In other words to avoid Alice to feel attacked simply assume Alice did word it correctly and assume his understanding is at fault, even though there could have been objective ambiguity.

In the given example if Alice says "he cut wood" and Bob's unsure Charles or Dave cut wood then he could simply ask "You said Charles cut wood?" this way Alice can quickly confirm and/or correct without having to guess what was the ambiguity, acknowledge it, or have to recall what was her exact sentence.

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