Dark Matter: the unspoken meaning in what people say

Dark matter is a theoretical concept in Physics, which arose from physicists being unable to account for the behaviour of stars and galaxies from the light, energy and mass that they could see. ‘There must be something else to explain it’ they thought, and so the theory of dark matter was born: a theory that says around 83% of the matter in the universe cannot be seen because it doesn’t emit light, heat or radiation, but that it acts in fundamental ways on the other bodies in the heavens, and explains previously inexplicable gravitational behaviour.

Back on earth, dark matter fills our lives – it exists in every conversation that we’ll ever have. It exists in the gap between the visible (the things people say) and the invisible (the things they mean), and it explains the difference between what people say, and what they do.

The gap between saying and doing comes from a difference in context, not (necessarily) because we are unreliable, or unpredictable – the more we understand of someone’s context, the more we understand the basis for their decisions – the more they make sense.

We can anticipate the actions of our closest friends and family because our contexts are aligned – we share many insights into each other’s character through shared experiences stretching back over years. Relationships in the working environment are typically shorter, and shallower – it is possible to work with someone for several years without knowing precisely how many children he has.

There are many conversations that go as follows:

‘Oh, I thought you were going to X.’

‘No. (surprised) I’m doing Y, but X is a much bigger task.’

‘Right. (now worried). X is due in 2 days…’

The gap in expectations, the dark matter, exists as assumptions – unless you know someone very well, or are eerily perceptive, assumptions about what they’ll do in any given situation are almost always wrong.

Short of spending many years getting to know your colleagues, business partners, and customers, the short cut to reducing the effect of dark matter is to spend a few minutes asking specific questions, listening to the answers, and trying to understand the other person’s context:

‘What are you looking to achieve with this?’ – useful focus on an end goal.

‘Why is this important?’ – useful when prioritising against other tasks.

‘How do you want this to be done?’ – useful to define the parameters of a course of action.

Specific questions about What, Why, and How make us think – they clarify in our own minds what we’re looking for and why. If we understand our own context better, we can explain our context better to other people.

Concrete words shine a light on the dark matter of our motivation, and sometimes they’re difficult to say for this reason, but as ever – a little discomfort now is worth it to save a world of pain later.