Do You Use ‘Hedge Words’? (“So, Do You Kinda Know What I Mean?”) It’s Time to Stop!

[ This article was originally featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Two More Chains. ]

By Mark Rosenthal

Air Attack to a Division Supervisor over Command: “I think I’m gonna use ‘Air-to-Ground 2’ ”.

Why do we THINK we are going to do something?

Is Air Attack changing frequencies here? Suggesting a change in frequencies? Unsure of which frequency to use? Or, is he—inadvertently—using “hedge words”?

Equivocate: To use ambiguous or unclear expressions – usually to avoid commitment. To use “hedge words”.

Hedge Words: Hedge words make statements less forceful or assertive. While they are sometimes intended for politeness, they often end up “softening” the message: “It strikes me that you’re apparently mistaken – I think.” We often don’t even realize that we are using these hedge words – also known as “soft talk”. Most of the time these words can undermine our credibility and make us appear less confident.

By the way, in this specific case—on a fire last season—this was a very good Air Attack doing a very good job. Yet he left me unsure of which frequency to use. And, as I listened carefully to more radio commo, I realized it wasn’t just this Air Attack. It became obvious that we have a problematic communication pattern embedded in our culture.

Sorta Kinda Maybe

Have you, too, noticed how we “kinda” talk to each other these days?” How we “sorta kinda” use “maybe” and “hopefully” a lot. Or, how about this for hedging or softening: “If it’s not too much trouble, you might ask someone to see if they think they can try to give [fill-in-the-blank] a shot.”

Why do we automatically believe that clear, direct statements will “feel” too strong to our message’s receiver? Because of this apprehension, we insert a “safety net” in the form of hedge words. This unfortunate outcome is most common over the radio—where the receiver is unable to read body language, facial expressions or hand gestures that are automatically used by the sender to “soften” communications.

Typical Hedge Words

About, apparently, appear, around, basically, can, could, effectively, fairly, generally, hopefully, in general, kind of, largely, likely, mainly, may, maybe, more or less, mostly, overall, perhaps, presumably, pretty (pretty strong, pretty weak), probably, quite, rather, really quite, really, seem, somewhat, sort of, supposedly.

A Lesson for the Wildland Fire Community

Last year, during an opportunity to work with a military unit, I often heard the Lieutenant Colonel giving direction (commands) to a Captain. His orders were always clear and concise. At the same time, you could tell this Lieutenant Colonel had respect for the Captain’s skills and abilities. The military considers communication an art. Officers are evaluated on their ability to deliver clear, concise intent to their subordinates. There is a lesson here for the wildland fire community. Another good example is how our partners in Law Enforcement communicate. Would these folks ever say: “I think I am going to ask you to get out of the car now.” Or: “I think it may be a good time to evacuate—if it’s not too much trouble”.

We Struggle to be Clear

Why does wildland fire avoid direct statements? In our profession we pride ourselves in clear text and efficient/effective communication. Yet, in reality, we often don’t achieve it. Ironically, this is most apparent in operational communication where the margin of error cannot allow for assumptions or a lack of clarity: Air Attacks, ICs, Ops Chiefs, Hotshot Sups, Crew Leads—all levels of fire ground leaders often struggle to be clear.

We usually know what we want or need to say. So why do we couch this information with hedge words? Do we fear being direct will be interpreted as harsh or uncaring? In our business, being direct should always be interpreted as important and required.

I believe that we don’t realize how pervasive the use of hedge words has become in our everyday conversations. How we speak to each other when we’re hanging out—is how we speak to each other on the fireline.

Practice communicating without hedge words. Commit to the certain and unequivocal. Go for the bold and be sure in your words.

Good luck.

Use any one of the Tactical Decision Games available on the NWCG Leadership Committee webpage to practice communicating without “hedge words/soft talk”. Run the scenario like you always would – then focus your AAR on hedge words. Then run it again!


 [Curtis Heaton contributed to this article.]

One thought on “Do You Use ‘Hedge Words’? (“So, Do You Kinda Know What I Mean?”) It’s Time to Stop!

  1. I could hardly agree more with the basic premise of this article. “Mush” in language is an obstacle to effective communication. It can be a barrier to success. It can produce or increase hazards to life and property. All bad news in our business.

    However, “mush” and “soft” are not the same thing — “mush” is ambiguous; “soft” is flexible. “Soft” language used effectively can promote accurate communication, provide keys to success, and mitigate hazards.

    The opening scenario is indeed “mush” to no positive effect. But consider a “soft” approach which is not “mush”: “I propose we go on A/G-2, if that works for you?” Unless there is some time crunch and no practical alternative to A/G-2, there could be many reasons to consider options. Collaboration to make a *good* choice first can offer many advantages over correcting a “decisive” choice later — possibly multiple times, at a hotter tempo, with less margin. Effective CRM is not about faking certainty when there is none; it’s about juggling options and uncertainties to the best available outcome.

    Similarly, the bold list of “hedge” words contains many terms which are *factual* approximations in our operating environment. If you can tell me during the shift *exactly* how many acres, what ROS, how many rolls of hose, what time the lunches, how strong the push, how weak the line, time to control, miles to town, effect of an approaching weather event, and on and on — then you’re not spending enough time working! “Soft” language makes talking about those issues honest — especially when you can’t use eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, or finger gestures to point out the ambiguities in every hour of every shift.

    By all means, scrape the “mush” out of your communications. But don’t let a fear of “soft” be the enemy of true, or effective, or safe messages.

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