Practice Saying “It’s More Complicated Than That…”

“It’s more complicated than that.” Start saying this phrase a lot. Say it 10 times a day, even if only to yourself. Try it out and see how it impacts your own and others’ communication. I think you’ll be surprised at the results.

I often wonder how many conflicts would be resolved, how many relationships might be restored, or how much human flourishing might develop across this planet if every one of us made saying this phrase, or one like it, a communication skill unto itself.

Coined by Kenneth Burke, “it’s more complicated than that” is a call to humility and honesty about what we each actually know or can know in any situation. It recognizes that none of us are all seeing or understanding, need others to grow and expand our knowledge, and always in the process of coming to know more. As we coordinate and come to meanings with one another through our communication, “it’s more complicated than that” is about the mystery that always lies beyond our net of words cast.

Here’s a real-life example. I once started a new job where everyone I met explained to me in advance that my interactions with one staff member would be “difficult.” This person was described as “terse, temperamental, and cold.” I could have let the selection of others’ emotions and terms for this person determine my responses, but said to myself, “it’s more complicated than that.”

When I first met the staff member, I decided to greet them with a smile, show genuine interest, use some humor, and ask lots of friendly questions. While this person had walked into my office with a scowl on their face, to my surprise, they started smiling back, opened up, and became chatty—perhaps because they weren’t used to being treated this way, so responded in kind.

I found out over several conversations about some horrendous difficulties this person had faced in their personal life, how they were caretaking elderly parents when not at work, and the amount of stress this all generated daily. “It’s more complicated than that” recognized that there was more to know about them, bringing empathy into the equation. Despite all I came to know about this person, there were boundless other learnings beyond the horizon of our conversations.

The phrase is not for situations where simplicity and consensus have already been reached. Yes, it’s important to brush your teeth, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, make sure your car tire pressure isn’t too low, and wear clothing to your local CVS. If you’re looking to rid yourself of friends quickly, saying “it’s more complicated than that” to advice to take a shower will do the trick. Nor am I advocating that attempts to distill and translate complexity be abandoned in favor of burying audiences’ in reams of complicating but unnecessary information.

It’s also not meant to avoid questions, make all claims to knowledge equal, or stall decisions. If you have a heart attack, it’s a good time to see an expert who knows a lot about it and not entertain the internet quackery just emailed to you by your third cousin. And if my nine-year old responds to my saying “it’s time for bed” with “it’s more complicated than that,” I’ll tell him we’ll pick up that debate down the road.

Where “it’s more complicated than that” becomes useful is for the myriad daily events that have at least two important features: 1) there is much more to be known than the selections our nervous systems and words can ever capture, and 2) there’s difficult or wicked problems to address that escape definitive answers and whose changing contexts and boundaries know no end.

One illusion gets in the way of honest assessments that events are almost always more complicated than we can see. That illusion is, “I tell it like it is.” A more accurate version would be, “I tell it like I see it.” None of us can see radio waves or gamma rays, because the human nervous system isn’t set up to see them. But they’re there, right? Many of my former colleagues played a trick on themselves by imagining that they were all seeing and knowing about our co-worker, and that there was only one interpretation to be had.

When we throw into the mix that we all have multiple identities and many terms could be used to describe anyone, our human drive to fix labels should be shown for the charade that it is. The ancient admonition to “Know Thyself” only takes all this further. That someone can sit for years in therapy trying to come to know themselves better only reinforces the point: we’re never done with finding out more about both others and ourselves.  

So, try it today. Say “it’s more complicated than that” when you hear a definitive word, frame, or approach used to describe a situation where there’s probably more that could be known. A parallel practice for adaptive leadership is to “generate multiple interpretations simultaneously.” I’ll apply it here too by recognizing that there’s more to know, see, and do than what my words here could possibly have captured. What’s your take?