Let’s clear the air, clean the slate, have a sit-down, face-to-face, heart-to-heart meeting of the minds in which we’ll at least agree to disagree. That’s part of the advice from seminars, books, coaches and consultants to communicate better.
It’s advice that George Franks took to heart. He says his mentor suggested that he start and end every conversation with his new boss, who never had time for him, by asking how he could help. The tactic, it turns out, offended his boss by implying he needed help.
It “so infuriated him that he started dumping all the projects no one else wanted or was doing on me,” says Franks. “He became less available to meet with me.”
Candy Friesen took advice about paraphrasing what a person says, indicating her understanding. That didn’t go over so well. Whenever she did it, she says, “I seemed to engender animosity or hostility.”
One small thing that was left out of all those advice books: “None of them ever said the person to whom you’re speaking may not appreciate having his thoughts paraphrased one little bit.”
In the business-counselling industry, there’s a solution for almost everything. Often it’s to communicate better. Communication breakdowns are easy to spot—and are everywhere. Government commissions investigating problems find them all the time. So do parents, teens and toddlers. Wars are waged because of bad communications. Love is lost.
You can’t go wrong advising better communication. But sometimes efforts to clear the air don’t go according to the five-, seven-, or 10-step plan. Some problems between people simply are intractable. No amount of genius communication may help you in the face of an easily threatened manager, a fast-draw blackballer or, clinically speaking, a nut case. And if someone hates your guts, spilling them tactfully isn’t always productive.
“If there’s an interpersonal problem where the person doesn’t like you especially, communicating better with that person will have zero effect,” says Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “In fact, it will have a negative effect because the person will use your position against you.”
Instant communications in an electronic age create a rush to do so, he says. But sometimes it’s worth not communicating “especially if you know the situation is going to change or could change.”
Business advisers aren’t totally to blame. There’s an audience for non-nuanced, microwaveable solutions. And in the office, where talking about talking is systematized in things like meetings and their follow-ups, words are often mistaken for deeds.
Compounding the problem are the bad apples who, having failed to heed advice in preschool, make it necessary to state the stupefyingly obvious such as, “Listen to gain understanding,” as one article on communication notes.
But advice to communicate better can often seem too pat, like much of the self-help industry that influenced business books. “Just choose happiness,” wrote Norman Vincent Peale in a model of can-do literature, The Power of Positive Thinking. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to accomplish.” (Nomination for an easier happiness key: Vastly lower your expectations.)
What’s too easy, some say, is calling something a communication problem when there’s a lot more to it. Claudia Mattheiss had a boss who always told her to “never hold back” whatever she thought and felt—until she communicated what she thought and felt.
Her boss had asked her to find out why people were so fearful. The more she talked to people, the more she learned that her manager, unapproachable and vengeful, was scaring the daylights out of everyone. Gingerly, Mattheiss explained just that.
“She almost fired me,” recalls Mattheiss. “She said I’m totally overstepping my bounds.” Their relationship never recovered.
“There’s such a thing as talking to the wall. There is also such a thing as talking something to death,” she says. “It’s sometimes better to do instead of talking about doing.”
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