By Jay Vogt
Ultimately the best way to communicate difficult messages with people in your work life is through direct communication. Communicating directly means approaching them and sharing your message face-to-face. Being indirect, by contrast, means speaking about them when not in their presence, or using a third party as an intermediary. The wisdom of communicating directly may seem obvious, yet I find communicating indirectly to be one of the most common sources of intrigue and unhappiness in work settings.
Let’s map it out. Imagine a triangle with three points, A, B, and C.
We’ll call them Alice, Betty, and Clara. Let’s say you identify with Alice, because she has a problem with Clara, and you’ve had your share of problems with Clara in your work life. It may be scary to approach Clara directly because she is the source of your difficulty. So, many of us go to Betty and complain about Clara. This releases some of our immediate tension with Clara, but it does nothing to resolve our original difficulty.
Now look at it from Betty's and Clara’s perspectives. Betty’s relationship with Clara has been soured in some way by your communication, not based on anything in her personal experience, but instead on yours. Clara is disadvantaged because people are talking about her, but without giving her the benefit of feedback on her behavior, which might allow her to learn and change.
If Alice wants a breakthrough in the situation, she has a few alternatives. She can approach Clara directly and give her feedback assertively. If she is not sure how to do that, she can ask Betty for coaching on how to approach Clara, and even practice the interaction. This is a constructive way to use the Bettys in her life. If it is too scary to approach Clara directly, she could ask Betty to accompany her as a quiet support. Or perhaps Betty would be willing to mediate the conversation as a neutral third party. If these options still feel too scary, Alice can approach her boss, Dorothy, and ask her to intervene, or to mediate the conversation.
The Power of the Person in the Middle
I like to think that Betty is the most powerful player in this drama triangle. Clara, as we’ve acknowledged, is clueless about what is going on. And Alice is often unwilling or unable to take direct action. When Alice approaches Betty, on the other hand, Betty has a choice. She can encourage Alice to share her difficulty, which builds a kind of immediate intimacy. But it often leaves Alice feeling newly unburdened, while Betty feels newly burdened. It also distorts Betty’s own relationship with Clara.
But Betty can also set boundaries. She can decline to listen to Alice’s complaints, if they are not backed by any intention to take action. Or she can offer to listen only if Alice accepts coaching about how to approach Clara directly. By making this choice, Betty declines to take on Alice’s burden, and instead helps Alice find new strengths within herself.
When you find yourself in Alice’s place, avoid the easy way out and don’t dump your difficulties on others. Ask for help, and approach the Claras in your work life directly. When you find yourself in Betty’s place, avoid the immediate reward of taking on Alice’s burden. Make her earn her confidence in you, by helping her take responsibility for her own communications. And when you find yourself in Clara’s place, hope your colleagues have read this article, and have the decency to speak to you, rather than about you, behind your back.
Jay W. Vogt is an organizational development consultant, and author of Recharge Your Team – The Grounded Visioning Approach. Learn more at PeoplesWorth.com.