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Breaking the Cycle of Non-Communication

Sometimes, leaving things unsaid can create silence on a much broader level

If you’ve been following my series on poor communication, you’ll have noticed that I’m big on stepping back when it’s necessary—on giving others space to contribute and take the floor.

So why the about turn with this post?

Because sometimes, leaving things unsaid can lead to silence on a much broader level. It’s especially the case when issues get left for a really long time, and I’m sure that to most of us, the reason why is clear. When things get brushed under the carpet—or as the old Italian saying goes, when we don’t “put the fish on the table”—the effects can be negative.

Here are two of the poor communication problems that can result when things get left unsaid.

1. Avoiding the Subject

The metaphorical ‘fish under the table’ can refer to many things. In team situations, however, it typically refers to a difficult topic or a perceived problem. Say a team is working together on a project, and some feel that others are not putting in enough effort. Nobody wants to bring up the issue, so the matter remains undiscussed. The fish, as one could say, is under the table.

It is something that we wouldn’t do in practice, and for good reason. Leave even the highest-quality salmon under the dinner table, and it will soon start to smell pretty awful. After a while, so will the whole room, then the entire house. In the worst possible scenario, your neighbors may either come knocking, or avoid your house.

For those of you relating to this metaphor, these ‘neighbors’ represent clients or customers. I’m sure you can see why.

The Problem

At the team level, the problem also spreads. People start to disconnect from one another, and it shows in the way they communicate—or, more accurately, the way they don’t communicate.

Whatever you choose to call it—a fish on the table, the elephant in the room—but the effect is the same. When people stop talking about issues, they stop talking in a meaningful way altogether.

If things go unaddressed for long periods of time, we can even see this tendency become a ‘norm’ in organizational cultures. People see others ignoring things, and perhaps it becomes harder to raise the issue. Doing your own thing and keeping your head down, in comparison, seems much easier. When that happens, as I noted in one of my earlier posts, we see silo mentalities start to emerge.

2. Saying something other than you mean

In a day and age where workplace stress is a big deal, unnecessary work isn’t something we need or want. But it can happen fairly easily when people stop communicating.

If you’ve ever found yourself agreeing to work that you don’t really understand, you will be able to relate. Or perhaps, in a leadership situation, you’ve come across a team member who simply nods and agrees to a task? Quite often, these situations end the same way: “OK, sure,” or “OK, I will”.

What happens next is plain enough. Someone, whether you or your colleague, ends up taking on a task they might not have bargained for, and things can pile up. Even worse, they may not have understood you properly, and that effort is wasted.

Why?

This can happen when we follow up on tasks fairly frequently. Of course, following up with others can be important if you are in a managerial or leadership role. But everybody is different, and sometimes, others may not feel comfortable admitting that they are overwhelmed.

If you start to notice that you’re getting a lot of “OK, I will”, you might try changing your approach. Once again, why not speak up? Ask your colleague how they are feeling about the task, if they need more information to do a good job, and even encourage them to ask you questions.

As a leader, you have the responsibility if you see people are taking on jobs without asking enough questions.

Let’s Talk

In both of these situations, it helps to speak up.

Breaking the cycle of non-communication may be easier said than done, but the long-term payoff is very much worth it. By speaking up, we can combat the negative spiral into lost trust or “OK, I will”. So, in both of these cases, the best approach is to get communication flowing once more.

When you sense that it might be more productive in the long run to talk about an issue, it may be time to consider how to approach the topic. When you feel that others are saying something other than they mean (i.e. “OK, I will”), then open up a dialogue.

Do you feel like you can relate to either of these scenarios? Have you ever felt like things would go more smoothly if people just…talked? You may also like the other articles in my poor communication series, which you can find here. Let me know your thoughts!

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