How often do you regret not saying something when you know you should? How many opportunities did you miss because of that? Could you have been somewhere else now had you done otherwise? I had my fair share of communication failures. Did you?
Many experts tell us that communication is the most important factor in building successful teams and businesses. They give us advice on how to improve it, how to listen and so on. But what if there’s nothing to improve or listen to because there’s no communication going on at all? By that I mean people are not opening their mouths to let the words out. What you get then is just silence with a mutual expectation of mind reading from all parties.
This is always plainly visible with teams, which just start cooperating during our WARBAND workshops. In the beginning, team members try to accomplish tasks with minimal or no communication whatsoever. You can guess how well that works. For example, they try to make a tactical entry and end up all bursting through the door all at once and getting stuck. Or they freeze before the door because each of them is expecting someone else to go first. However, as they develop their communication skills they become more efficient. What starts out as a complex verbal command becomes a nod or a simple gesture. By the end of the workshop the teams are able to reach their objectives with clockwork precision.
Obviously somebody needs to start that process and it is up to the leader to begin and give an example of how and when to talk. However, it is easier say that than to actually say something to the other person. Many times I found myself blocked from saying something crucial or maybe a bit edgy when I felt I needed to. Blocked by what? Well, myself really. I found it difficult to understand where this barrier comes from until I came across the most influential book I’ve ever read.
That book is the “The gift of fear“ by Gavin de Becker. de Becker is a renowned expert in security and predicting human behavior, working on many notable cases, such as the OJ Simpson trial. The book focuses on exploring signals and motivations preceding violent or otherwise harmful actions in multiple contexts. However, why it does so it also touches on many other subjects, which I find very familiar and fascinating. The prevailing motif is our intuition giving us a hand in life and us ignoring it most of the time.
For example, de Becker ask why do we not turn around when we sense danger behind us? Why do we engage with strangers who make us feel uneasy or afraid? Why do we not tell someone to stop something, which causes us pain and misery. Why do we keep our mouths shut or dance around the problem when we feel like we should be loud and explicit? Why do we do all of that an more when our intuition is screaming at us to do the opposite?
Let’s put aside the danger and focus on the talking part. I think de Becker’s answers are spot on – we seek not to offend even at a great cost. Why? Because of the way we are raised. Since childhood we are taught to be nice and to avoid confrontation like it’s the most important thing in life. Not to offend is considered, especially in the current century, as the foundation of communication. Because of this upbringing we lead our lives with a major priority to please others but the price of that is payed just by us.
Don’t get me wrong, niceness is an important part of the social contract but we have taken it too far. Also, I’m against offending for offence sake – that’s just being an asshole. However, offending other parties is sometimes an integral side effect of honest, non-hostile communication. So, I pay little attention when somebody says: “I’m offended by that” because it is not a complete sentence. It is just a childish reaction and should be treated as such. As the brilliant Christopher Hitchens eloquently put it: “You’re offended? Well, I’m still waiting to hear your argument.”
Direct communication is bound to spark confrontation at some point and that’s good. If handled professionally, this conflict can become a fire, in which new ideas and relationships are forged. Given the character of guys like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs the product development meetings at Apple or Space-X must’ve been horrific battlefields. Was that any good? I think the status of those companies is evidence enough.
And relationships? You know the answer to that one. Who are your friends and people who you trust most? Those who say everything you want to hear or those who confront you and give you a hard time when necessary?
Ok, time for some profound wisdom. How do you start communicating? By starting to communicate. It’s a skill like any other and you can only learn by doing. This applies to everyone, whether in a leadership position or not. At first it will be awkward and feel forced. However, as you progress it will become second nature. If you practice that when in business with people who are also reluctant to speak there’s a high chance that you’ll say what’s on their minds anyway. Even if you stumble they will respect you for saying out loud what they couldn’t.