Up Front Communication

Helping people and businesses through the art of communication

So you are not outspoken…

There are people who come to me for help because they love speaking and want to get better at it.

There are people who come to me for help because they are terrified of speaking, because they are desperately uncomfortable being heard and raising their voice, or because their shyness has started to get in the way of their work.

Invariably at some point, the fearful or reluctant to-be speakers express the same reservation:  “But I’m just not an outspoken person!”  (Or, as often as not, “but I’m not outspoken like you!”*)

Here’s the flaw in that statement:  they’ve equated being outspoken with speaking out.

Take a moment and bring to mind someone you consider outspoken.  The most likely image is someone bubbly, boisterous, and probably a bit larger-than-life.  You may love them or hate them, but they are impossible to ignore.  They usually have bags of energy and say what’s on their mind, damn the consequences – and for some bizarre reason they can get away with it.

Now think of someone you’ve seen speak out.  They are absolutely impassioned about their message and what they have to say,** but that’s where the similarities end.  Some people think of a person with a soft voice and demeanour.  Others conjure up an image of someone with fire blazing in their eyes who simply couldn’t keep quiet any longer.  Others still think of a person who stood up with a carefully prepared message, notes in hand; maybe the paper trembled.  Sometimes the speaker has a raised voice, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes their words are strong and powerful, sometimes they are hesitant and tremulous.  In all cases, though, their message is heard.  Their message is important.

Speaking out is about delivering an important message.

It requires you to open your heart.  It requires you to open your mouth.

But it does not require you to be outspoken.


*I find the “I’m not outspoken like you” comment hilarious, probably because I have to muster up a pretty considerable amount of courage to don an ‘outspoken’ mantle.  It is exhausting work.

**That’s what makes speaking out so courageous; the message is so important that it becomes bigger than the speaker’s fear.  But this is a topic for another day.

Communicating Intimately #3: Intimacy within a business

Have you ever been in the desperately uncomfortable position of having a “buddy” conversation with your supervisor, or being in charge of an employee who treats you more like a therapist than a manager?  I’ve never experienced the latter, but know several colleagues who have.  The former has happened to me in a few situations, and each time was so writhingly awkward that I never wanted to repeat it again.

That’s the problem with intimate communication among employees within a business.  It is its own type of intimacy peculiar to that environment. It matters where people are within the organization’s hierarchy.  Even if the organization is relatively flat, there are still underlying pecking orders and relationships that inherently affect the types of conversations that can be held.* Generally speaking, intimate conversations within a business should be just about that – business.  It isn’t that we shouldn’t learn about our peers or our supervisors or our employees; it’s that the power structure of a business affects the relationships up and down the ladder.  That can change what we are comfortable discussing with our co-workers.

In one industry I worked in, “buddy” type relationships between managers and those working beneath them were encouraged.  The idea was that if you could develop a fuzzy, cuddly relationship with your underlings, they would be more likely to be open and honest with you when discussing work.


It was a nice idea in theory.  In practice, it muddied working relationships and created a climate of agonizing phoniness.  Get-to-know-you conversations with new managers were saccharine in the extreme and did not improve working relationships.  People wondered why their managers wanted to know so much about them.  Instead of creating stronger and more personal relationships, people began mistrusting the motives of managers acting like their buddy.  Would private conversations be shared?  Could something they said about their personal lives be used against them?

The difficulty with this approach was that the development of personal intimacy was forced.  It was as though merely working with one another in the same industry and the same company meant that you had – or should have – a ‘friend first, manager second’ relationship.  If that sort of relationships develops naturally between two co-workers, than that’s great.  But it cannot be created quickly in staged situations.

I believe that intimate communication within a business should be about just that – business.  You can have intimate conversations and not delve into your employee’s personal lives or play armchair counselor. Intimate business conversations involve discussions where people are able to express their joys, their irritations, and their passions about their work.  Fostering this kind of communicative intimacy does not involve becoming your co-worker’s buddy.  It involves developing your co-worker’s trust.  They need to know that you will allow them to express their feelings and actual opinions without adverse impact on their job or your working relationship.  This climate of trust doesn’t depend on your knowledge of their kids’ extracurricular activities or their fondness for off-hours geocaching.  It depends on a climate of respect and consideration in which opinions are solicited and considered without fear of backlash.

The type of intimate conversations that happen within a business will change depending on the relationships of the people involved.  Conversations held up or down the hierarchical ladder are naturally more constrained than those that happen between equals or peers.  Managers are often concerned with revealing too much high-level information to their subordinates.  Subordinates are worried about criticizing their managers.  There is more opportunity for peers to express their actual opinions to one another, provided they trust the other to not mention those opinions to their supervisors.  If the relationship changes, so will the conversations.  It is not uncommon for friendships between co-workers to dissolve when one person gets promoted and moves higher up the corporate ladder than their friend.  The risks taken when having intimate conversations change are amplified.  Conversations end up changing along the same lines as the friendship itself, often becoming more cautious and less open than they were before.

If relationships within a business affect conversations, and conversations are affected by the relative power held by workers, how do you know when you are having an intimate conversation with a co-worker?  Look for the degree to which they express emotion.  Will they openly express excitement or nervousness?  Consider the degree of risk they take when talking to you.  Are they willing to challenge your opinions or ask for explanations of your decisions?  Pay attention to the content of their statements.  Do they make lots of “I” statements and use strong emotive words like “I believe” or “I feel”?  These are markers that the person you are talking to trusts you to consider the meat of their points without taking personal affront to what they have to say.  This is hugely advantageous; if the people you work with know that they can challenge and debate with you, and then listen to you in return, then you know you can have intimate business discussions with them.  These conversations foster a worker’s passion and buy-in, and can result in productive and challenging exchanges that could hugely benefit the company.

Don’t try to force friendship.  That won’t always result in intimacy.  Try, instead, to create trust.  Trust is the absolute foundation for intimate conversation with the people in your organization.

*Let me make the following very clear:  when I’m talking about the kinds of conversations that can be had, I’m referring to conversations that are fairly “normal” in nature.  If someone is having non-work issues of a nature that require them to have a serious, personal discussion with a peer, supervisor, or other colleague, than that conversation needs to happen.  It should be treated with the utmost respect and discretion.

The Perfect Guide to Holiday Etiquette

For my American friends,  here is a guide to holiday dinner etiquette.  Note the hilarity that can be created by using technically correct words in an unexpected context.


Or just have fun with the sheer puerile nature of this offering.  Don’t show it to your kids.


[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFzz6EZmkq8&w=560&h=315]

Communication blockade

With the recent tragic news regarding the suicide of BC teen Amanda Todd, attention has been renewed on the topic of bullying both in media and in casual conversation.  Bullying does seem to be more prevalent now than it has been in recent years (possibly due to the potential for 24/7 harassment over internet social platforms).  Much of the focus on bullying is on teens, and generally they do partake in the more explicitly vicious forms of harassment.  It strikes me, however, that adult bullying is also on the rise.

Seeing as we spend a substantial number of our waking hours at our jobs – and that many workplaces merely feel like adult-populated versions of high school – the workplace becomes prime bullying territory.  I personally know many people who have been specifically targeted for workplace bullying.  This bullying typically came from a manager or supervisor with a higher status than their target.  While teens openly taunt, mock, harass, and attack, workplace bullies are slightly more subtle than that.  In addition to a more sophisticated bullying approach, workplace bullies are often protected by their superior rank within the organization.  Several of my personal acquaintances have been harassed by a workplace bully in the following ways:

    • Given impossible workloads
    • Given workloads far higher than those of their peers with the same jobs
    • Refused any form of support from their supervisor for any of their actions
    • Were openly attacked, antagonized, or otherwise demeaned by their supervisor in front of clients or service users
    • Were set against a colleague by a manager who antagonized the two employees by telling each of them untrue information against the other
    • Were refused vacation or sick leave to which they were entitled
    • Were blamed for problems or errors caused by the bullying supervisor
    • Were increasingly marginalized from their original responsibilities
    • Were relentlessly micromanaged

All of the above circumstances occurred in organizations in a dysfunctional work environment.  This should not come as a surprise; workplaces cannot be functional when employees are the targets for such actions.  What does surprise me is that many managers and supervisors – especially those who engage in bullying – believe that their tyrannical management methods will create a dutiful, compliant, diligent workforce.  The managers I witnessed first-hand engaging in this behaviour seemed mystified when employees avoided talking to them or communicating with them any more than absolutely necessary.  They admonished employees for not talking to them, citing platitudes such as “my door is always open.”

These workplace bullies operate under considerable delusion.  Firstly, they believe that their behaviour is acceptable.  Secondly, they have absolutely no clue that they are responsible for the most fundamental and damaging type of organizational communication breakdown: erosion of trust.

Really effective communication occurs when the parties trust one another.  We inherently listen to and share with people who we believe have a common interest and who we trust will act in a manner agreeable to us.  Bullying erodes trust more quickly than any other action I can think of.  Even habitual lying will not do as much damage as bullying if the habitual liar is generally likable.  We want to think that the likable liar is telling us the truth, so we give them the benefit of the doubt.  We know the bully will continue to victimize us or others, and so we instantly distrust anything they say.  We know that no matter what they do or say, we cannot trust them or their motives.  Add the behavioural dissonance when a bully says that their door is always open but will use anything you say against you, and you have a recipe for a closed, non-communicative organization.

When employees within an organization do not feel they can comfortably talk to their managers or with one another, dysfunction sets in.  People cannot effectively work when they cannot comfortably share information.  The end result is poor performance and high turnover, which is costly at best and ruinous at worst.  If a manager feels that they need to rule with a strict hand and through malicious tactics, they should be prepared to have their subordinates leave them out of the loop.  They should also be prepared for employees to quit after a fairly short period, and – if the bully’s own supervisors have even one iota of sense – for their own tenure at that organization to be brief.

Information Overload

Let’s start off this post with a quick apology to you, reader, for the gap in entries this last week.  I was somewhat indisposed, being at the hospital with my husband in order to bring this lovely little bundle into the world:

My new son, all of seven and a half hours old

All three of us are doing extremely well. I am healing nicely, my husband has melded into the role of Dad magnificently, and my baby boy is healthy, calm, alert, and an utter joy!

Going through pregnancy for the first time gave me an interesting look into the trap of information overloading.  The anxieties, concerns, and delights of pregnancy and impending motherhood sent me to the internet again and again in order to dig up whatever I could on my Issue du Jour.  Regardless the circumstance, question, or worry, there was always a glut of information to be found.  Expert advice, personal stories, agenda-heavy tirades, and woefully out-of-touch recommendations – seek and ye shall find.  It doesn’t seem to matter if you are looking into a complicated matter like pregnancy or a relatively simple thing like sprained ankles.  Every Google query will create hundreds of results, many conflicting, many misleading, some highly worthwhile.

This sort of information deluge can often have a result opposite of what we wanted: uncertainty instead of answers, increased anxiety instead of reassurance.  A quest for answers becomes a rather arduous journey of info and source evaluation.  If you are feeling particularly lost or vulnerable about an issue, this can set you on a treadmill of info seeking, info seeking, info seeking without ever finding an answer satisfactory to your needs.

When the number of websites and articles on any given topic is seemingly endless, it is very easy to become overloaded and overwhelmed with information.

This is something I personally struggle with; being a methodical researcher who is naturally curious with a penchant for fact-checking, information overload can become quite problematic.  This is also the case for many of my colleagues and friends.  Eventually, you need to get off the info treadmill, if for no other reason than to reclaim the time spent surfing the internet and hopefully regain a bit of sanity.  At one point, I needed to completely forgo searching for anything related to pregnancy and motherhood.  The number of viciously judgmental web pages, internet flame-fests, brutally misinformed articles from “reputable” sites, and general “mommy war” type crap was beginning to enrage me at their mere suggestion.  Yet I would still keep looking at them, on topics ranging from pre-natal exercise to newborn sleep patterns.  Eventually, I had to cut myself off.  After a couple days of struggling not to slide back into the habit of looking at “just a few” search results, I was much happier.

I don’t have much in the way of advice for backing away from needless internet searches.  I found that I have to go cold turkey for a couple of days when I begin spinning my wheels with an info overload topic.  Some of my friends have used timing techniques, only allowing themselves fifteen minutes for looking into any single topic. Others may find that limiting the number of search results they are allowed to click on helps.  It may take you several tries to find a method that works for you.  Resetting this habit is a wonderful thing, though – as I said, it turns the world back into a much saner place.

Have you ever subjected yourself to information overload by endlessly searching a given topic?  If this was a habit of yours, how did you break it?