The Ever Important Function Of Communication

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t said.” (Peter Drucker)

I wonder how many times a day we allow an elephant in the room to graze uninterrupted. And I wonder what the aggregate impact is of entertaining herds of elephants each day on the people, groups, and teams.

Over the last few months, I have had several examples that I have noticed (and perhaps some I missed) with some of the teams I have worked with. For instance:

  • We had two team members in tears for different reasons and at different times during a team workshop just the other day about things that had happened previously within the team (and thus known to the team) – and the rest of the team just nodded sympathetically;
  • In one team I worked with, we had a discussion about how we as a team experienced the recent departure of one team member – everyone sang his virtues; no one mentioned the fact that he never did any work which meant the rest of the team for a long time had added aspects of his role to their already full roles;
  • In working with a small partnership team in a new business, one of the partners was clearly angry about something, angry to the point of tears, and no one thought to ask what was really going on for her – what she was saying was clearly on symptomatic of a real issue that she was hiding.

Overcoming The Elephant In The Room 

In each of these examples, something (the elephant) was left unsaid:

  • The two team members in the first example probably felt unheard as the other team members showed genuine sympathy without declaring their roles as a source of those tears;
  • It’s all very well to acknowledge what a past team member has done and meant to a team (however little this may be), but the team needs to tackle the fact that they remained silent for years and what impact this had on the team’s performance, not to mention agreeing on ground rules in future for surfacing issues; and
  • It’s a really bad start to a relationship, if partners don’t surface what’s going on in their team so soon in the business’ history. What other bad habits are going to grow out of that?

Rule #1 is that we must surface the things left unsaid, the emotions in the room if we are to grow as a team. Of course, it’s often the ‘how’ that scares us, but it is really quite simple if we apply our minds to it. For example (in the examples):

  • Someone needs to take responsibility and say something like: “We’ve heard how X feels about what is going on? What can we learn from this? How can we ensure we proactively and appropriately respond sooner in the future?”
  • What if someone said: “What is going on here? Have we spoken the whole truth here? And what are the implications for the team and our stakeholders if we continue to avoid surfacing complete truths?”
  • The partners will need to learn to say something like: “Y, I can see you feel really strongly about this. What is going on for you? What is behind your feelings?”

In Summary

Elephants are lovely animals and when they are in the room, they provide a majestic opportunity for learning about how we individually and collectively behave in various circumstances. If we take these opportunities, we are likely to learn constantly, be future-fit and prosper – if we don’t, we are likely to stagnate and fall behind the game. As always, the choice is ours.

Of course, if you or your team are coached, then the coach is likely to help you to identify the elephants and help you to deal with them. At the same time, hopefully, this blog will help you to do the same.

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