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Hidden below the surface

Have you noticed how often what someone means is hidden behind what they are saying? Sometimes they don't realise they are doing it, or they feel unable to say what they really mean. As human beings we almost all do it, and as a consequence we have also learned to 'read between the lines'. The result, a breakdown in trust.

Pre-COVID a lot of colleagues were told they could not work from home for all manner of reasons. Then everyone who could was told to work from home, and the majority of the barriers disappeared overnight. Of course, the truth in many cases was that the barrier given as the reason previously, never did exist, it was always about something else, something left unsaid.

I've been listening to a colleague recently who has been talking about their 'professional opinion'. Its true, they are qualified in things many other people are not. And its also true that quite often a professional opinion is just what we need. What is interesting is that they have noticed no-one is listening to them! Worse still they are becoming excluded from things which they might otherwise have been invited to contribute to.

In part the problem is when they talk about professional opinion what people hear is that they feel their opinion is more important, more valid, and by inference, that everyone else is wrong if they disagree. Again, sometimes that might be true, but in this case we are talking about strategy, vision and leadership, and fundamentally they are areas that benefit from discussion, wide ranging views, and consensus.

In leadership, being 'right' is not enough. Susan Scott in her wonderful book Fierce Conversations notes that the person who can most accurately describe reality without apportioning blame, will emerge the leader. And she's right. In leadership it is a really important skill to be able to accurately describe reality, without pointing the finger of blame. If only it was that easy.

Many people speak inferentially. They imply meaning without specifically stating something. There is definitely a time and place for that, but it isn't all the time or everywhere. So what do you do when you can see that a person is a contributing factor to something that is going wrong? Well that might depend on whether or not you are their manager. If you are then it is certainly time to be specific, clear and evidence based about how they are contributing to the problem from your perspective, before inviting them to describe how they view the situation. Too many managers try to duck the issue by being vague and wrapping up their feedback so heavily in cotton wool, the colleague would be lucky to have any clue what they truly mean. Speak with kindness and respect. You can only expect someone to improve their performance if they understand clearly the issues.

And if you're not their manager? Well remember that being tempted to express your 'professional opinion' about their performance may not serve you well, first consider what you can do differently in the circumstances. Reflecting on owning your own positive and constructive behaviours is always likely to serve you well. Remember that people are not their behaviour. All behaviour is contextual, so consider referring to how behaviours impact a situation rather than how a person impacts it, when your view is a negative one. Even good people have bad days.

Remember that when you are speaking inferentially, what you say is open to much greater interpretation. And people will interpret very differently, and often quite unpredictably. I have heard some amazing conspiracy theories emerge at times, and been left wondering how the person could possibly have reached that assumption. The cave below the surface of vague language can be substantial, and you might not be happy with the 'echoes'.

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