When Communication Goes Underground

Failure to communicate openly can be a real problem for teams and working relationships.  In the absence of direct communication, indirect communication usually results. A culture of gossip, high unexplained staff turnover and widespread complaining to no-one in particular, can be signs your workplace is a little reticent when it comes to direct communication.

When we lack the confidence or skills needed to engage others directly it becomes almost impossible to raise and resolve issues.  A tendency to ruminate over things can creep in.  When we do start to talk about what’s on our mind it often takes the form of debriefing with friends and colleagues.  The problem is that depending on how it‘s approached, debriefing can quickly degenerate into gossip. Having peer support person and managers trained in conflict coaching skills, can help to direct those informal conversations, ensuring that they are purposeful. They are able to seize the ‘coachable moments’ and channel the energy of the rant into constructive problem solving.

Let’s look at some of the traps of indirect communication more closely.

1. Going solo 

Reflecting on incidents and thinking about how best to approach a situation is important.  While our human drive to understand and make sense of situations is strong, going over events again and again in an effort to work them out can prove futile. There comes a point where you need to know whether you’re making progress or not.

Learning to make that call quickly can save you sleepless nights and a lot of stress.

If your thought patterns are so repetitive that they’re gouging ruts rather than making new connections, perhaps it’s time to consider a structured reflection tool.  Tools like the Self -Coaching Guide are designed to focus thinking, helping you to achieve new insights and develop a plan for proceeding.

2. Debriefing with others

A thinking partner or critical friend who isn’t embroiled in an issue can be a great asset, helping you gain perspective and new ideas.  Often we hear our thoughts for the first time when they’re spoken out loud.

But here’s the rub:  too often we want someone who’ll side with our story and commiserate with us.  The benefits of venting, and having someone else buy into our woes is usually short-lived.  Like a chocolate bar in commuter hour, it offers just enough relief to be addictive but is unsatisfying in the long term.  Griping without follow through, ultimately contributes to disempowerment and a sense of hopelessness.

Before seeking external support you might ask yourself:  What are my intentions here?  What am I hoping to achieve?

Be discerning about who you speak with.  Are they able to question your thinking?  Do they manage similar situations well?

Ask for what you want.  One of my mentors began every conversation by insisting that he had a clear ‘job description’ from me.  Let your debrief partner know what you’re looking for.  Give them permission to challenge you.  Let them know how sensitive or not you are about the issue.  Be congruent about your requests for support.

Finally assess any advice you receive.  Run it by your own radar to see if it fits for you.

In writing this, it occurs to me that anyone able to negotiate a good debriefing relationship is more than half-way to having a robust direct discussion.   I imagine an athlete going into training – consciously build their conversation muscle, whilst seeking support.

3. A culture of gossip

Most of us recognise the undermining consequences of rumours and gossip in the workplace.

Few teams or organisations set out to create such a culture.  Yet when open communication is feared, indirect communication becomes the norm.  The grapevine becomes one of the few channels in which information flows and we begin to rely on it for an indication of what’s really going on.

A closer look reveals a vicious cycle in which the continued failure to raise and resolve issues leads to a backlog of frustration and resentments.  Depending on the level of gossip, the team environment can start to feel unsafe.   This in turn makes it harder to initiate challenging conversations.

When I ask individuals and teams what stops them addressing issues with each other, the answer usually goes something like: “I don’t want to upset anybody, I’d hate someone to get hurt.”

Few recognise that the very indirectness that can seem the safest option under the circumstances is the problem. Ironically the desire to avoid hurt – either to others or ourselves – sets up the conditions in which hurt flourishes.

In a workplace that doesn’t deal with things directly, the roles of the gossiper and the one who is gossiped about, can interchange quickly.  Whilst we readily feel the sting of being hurt, we can be slower to recognise our role in changing the ways of communicating – or rather, not communicating – that have led to this point.

If your workplace is struggling with gossip, I suggest you focus on becoming more direct in your communication.  Take every opportunity you can to build your own and others’ capacity and confidence in having honest, respectful and courageous conversations.

In future blogs, I will explore the skills that underpin courageous conversations and the facilitation of those conversations.

For now I encourage you to track your interactions. How often do you feel ready to raise and resolve issues directly with colleagues, subordinates and your manager?  What strategies do you employ to cultivate your engagement and direct communication skills?

If you’d like to learn skills for supporting others as they reflect on emotionally charged experiences or prepare for challenging conversations, why not check out our CINERGY Conflict Management Coach programs.

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