Peter Drucker didn’t keep saying, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said” for nada. It’s one of those high-level communication tools so you understand the situation in high definition (faster)and have even more people marvel at how amazing you really are.
Now if disagreement is simply not tolerated where you work (I’m sure it’s for a good reason,) then stop reading this now.
When you really understand, you get the text (the words) and the subtext (what the speaker really wants to say but for some reason is saying something else.) If you have any experience with passive aggressives, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Coming from a family whose motto is “Let’s put the FUN back into dysfunctional”, I’ve noticed the same familiar dynamic in many a corporate culture. Isn’t it curious sometimes how top management insists on how much they value communication (or “transparency”), and yet no one feels like they’re really in the loop, or that they have a voice?
Yet hearing what isn’t being said is the only way to gather the best intel to make decisions. And people love it when you get what they want to say but for some reason are having a rough time with actually saying it.
You’re probably thinking, yeah, but who has time to be Clara the clairvoyant listener? Why don’t they just get to the point?
Ahh…you see but you do not observe. Some folks are more courageous than others. Consider these contextual clues:
1. Is it safe to disagree with you, or your boss?
What are the consequences for players on your team when they disagree…or in some way “speak their mind” in a way that appears to dissent?
Are there built-in incentives to always “just go with the flow”?
If you disagree, are you branded “not a team player” or “does not play well with others”?
If you ask a question, are you told (explicitly or otherwise,) “you should know that already”?
Have you ever made a suggestion that was greeted with stone-cold silence? (This does not encourage transparency, btw.)
2. No one likes to give bad news.
Even if it’s safe to speak up, no one (except sociopaths and meglomaniacs) enjoys correcting a subordinate, it’s simply part of the job. But if you hate doing something and procrastinate on it (when “it” is delivering a certain message), then *you* are leaving something out, a something that needs to be said.
If people are holding back “bad” news, or corrective suggestions and messages, how can you create incentives for speaking up?
3. Are there environmental issues at play?
Are your team members too burnt out to summon the energy to even articulate an alternative to your position?
Does someone have low blood sugar?
Has the meeting been so long and is it so disorganized that everyone just wants it to end….and so the tacit agreement is to keep quiet? (Hmmm. Let me count those…..)
The underlying factor in all “unspoken” messages is some form of fear.
- Fear of looking like a complete idiot
- Fear of living on unemployment checks
- Fear of never getting another raise
- Fear of being mocked in public or otherwise
- Fear of not being accepted by the cool kids at work
- Fear that this meeting will never actually end
How to deal with the unspoken? There’s amazing potential in allowing a space for actual freedom of expression at work. This is not a new problem. Recall the story about the boy who announced that the king was naked.
Have the audacity to make it safe to disagree with you, at least some of the time. While you don’t have time for endless discussion about the theory of everything, think about setting aside a space for disagreement, maybe in private meetings or maybe through a old-fashioned “suggestion box.” You could even set up a debate on a current issue, just to suss out some creative input.
You can ask people to write down what they really think on a piece of paper and hand it to you.
In any case, the real deal lies inside what isn’t being said. You might be surprised at what you’ll learn.