When What’s Not Said Dominates the Conversation

Here are three recent scenarios from our clients.  Read them carefully, because we’re staking a bet on them.

In the first, a client started his conversation with his coach by stating that he was sure that his boss, the CEO, was angry with him, though nothing had been expressly communicated to him.  He was seeking the coach’s advice on how to deal with this perceived anger.

In the second, our client expressed reluctance to tell a colleague she was disappointed in his failure to deliver on his promise to complete some work she needed in order to do hers.  Even though her colleague had made a promise to her, she ‘didn’t want to make him responsible for her schedule’.  When asked if it was likely he could tell from her non-verbals that she was disappointed, she responded, “Yes, probably.”

And finally, in the third scenario, a client was frustrated by the limited progress made by a group toward finding innovative solutions to a shared problem.  She described the source of the problem as a failure to discuss openly when one person in the room does not agree, and noted that over time solutions were adjusted to meet that one person’s needs, whether or not they created a good solution.  No one was willing to call the question about whether this one person’s influence was deleterious for group goals.

We are staking a bet that if we took a poll of our readers, every one of you would have had at least one of these types of experiences – and quite likely, all three, in your careers.  We’ve all felt the uncomfortable – even maddening – effects of how someone’s (or several peoples’) silence created a problem much larger than its underlying facts would imply.

For as much as we humans love to talk, we are incredibly consistent at not saying things that are important to advancing a meaningful conversation.  We fail to offer respectful disagreements, to ask important questions, to request adherence to promised accountability, and to name elephants in the room.  The failure to articulate these itchy topics, however, does not contribute to their resolution.  Worse yet, though our reason for avoiding the topics is to not to mess up progress by ‘personalizing’ an issue, exactly the opposite effect occurs.  The unspoken but evident omissions do mess up progress as people try to decipher what is left unsaid – and often, they also experience time-consuming and unproductive angst by assuming emotions like anger or disappointment are at the root of the silence.

As a leader, you have two responsibilities for assuring that what’s not said does not dominate – or even impair – the conversations in your place of work:

  1. First, you have the responsibility to personally model the type of openness that assures unspoken issues are not left unaddressed, and
  2. Second, you have the responsibility to encourage, support, and hold others accountable for the same type of open and respectful behavior.

Being candid – and encouraging respectful candor – is a skill worthy of serious cultivation.  Here are a few starting tips:

  • Practice the language of observation and perception, and ask permission to offer insight: “May I make an observation about what I am seeing in this situation?”  “I’d like to share a perception I have of what I’m observing.  Would you be open to that?”
  • Establish a safe environment for open conversation.  Encourage and reward candor, and call to account those who use silence as a way to control others.  Use ‘teaching moments’ regularly to point out the value of honest conversation in building relationships, solving problems, and innovating.
  • Make use of both facts and gut.  Invite both data and people’s feelings about topics – and when the feelings seem too bland, dig deeper.  Ask questions like, “What would make this decision uncomfortable for you?”  “If there is one thing that would give you heartburn if we didn’t get it right, what would it be?”
  • Give disagreement its due.  Diversity demands that we can’t possibly all agree – we can come to compromise.  Set the tone that disagreement, if done with respect and curiosity, is a healthy part of getting the best answers and ideas.  Encourage language that suggests alternatives rather than puts down ideas, such as “I understand what you’re saying; here’s another way of viewing it.”
  • Watch for dominant players.  Review decisions and plans for signs that they are being compromised by the requirements of one person or faction, and ask whether the entire group is really ready to support the plan.  If there is dissembling, insist on a plan of action that has full and enthusiastic support of everyone, and offer to step in to request a review of the plan based on your own discomfort that it is not a fully supported plan.
  • Rigorously encourage accountability.  Excusing people from being accountable gives them a mixed message about your expectations; keep that message clear by always requiring accountability.  Call them to account when they do not deliver, whether it is on work products or behavioral promises.  Asking them why it happened gives them an opening to explain themselves, but should never excuse them from delivering in the future.
  • Invite ‘tough love’.  As a leader, your development of people requires that all of you, like members of a close-knit family, give both helpful critiques and full support.  “Our growth as a team requires we help to develop each other, even if that means we point out each other’s shortcomings.  We do it respectfully and with the intent to support.  I will expect this of each of you.”
  • Name the elephants.  When something is being danced around, call the question: “We are not getting to resolution, and I believe it is because we do not have all the cards on the table.  What do we need to honestly and openly share with each other in order to move forward?”

Silence can be golden – in the right situations.  But when it masks uncomfortable confrontations or poor behaviors, it quickly eats away at a culture and prevents it from being powerfully productive.   Your leadership in encouraging and insisting on candor is not just a nicety; it is a necessity to a fully functioning work environment.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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