When Saying Nothing Says Too Much

Everyone knows that change can be a very difficult situation and something that has significant impact on the people around us and our relationships with those people. In a recent discussion about the way things were done and the way things are being done now, I again realized that we are so tuned into the habitual behavior that any alteration to that pattern will impact the messages we have of that behavior. We don’t even need to say anything and we are sending messages; sometimes messages that we don’t intent.

A group of people are used to working with another group of people to implement a task or event. For years (perhaps 10, 15, 20 or 25 or more) they have done things in such a way that the individuals could almost behave without any planning or discussion. Central to this relationship is an individual who works very closely with both groups. Any differences or difficulties are addressed by this central individual. Then the central individual leaves the relationship after many years. A change has occurred.

Now things start to get interesting. Things begin to fall through the cracks, causing hurt feelings or uncertainty about what to do. People start doing things their own way without saying much to the other group. The other group begins to question what that individual is doing and if that person is representing the whole group or not. Criticism happens and people start questioning each other’s motives. Suddenly the trust between the groups, which was really trust of the central individual, starts slipping and anger and frustration appear to replace the cooperative working relationship that once existed. Now conflict is center stage and people are really convinced the world has gone bad very quickly.

What is really happening? Is the world getting worse? Are people only in this situation to get what they can out of it? Or is it really a matter of people not saying enough to each other? Is it a time to start questioning actions to figure out the intent versus guessing at the intent? Is there need to rethink the whole task, the groups functions and the relationship between the groups?

I argue that change causes so much of a shift in the way we think and act that if we don’t have more conversation during change we are guaranteed to have lots of conflict. The change shifts what we have assumed to be true. We can no longer infer that anything will be the same. It is a must to begin having conversations about what people can expect from each and what different behaviors mean. Without this conversation you will be assuming and inferring certain things that may not be relevant any more.

Let me share an example. I become a member of one of these two groups that have for years worked together. Because I’m new and not certain how things work or what my role is to be, I decide I should attend a meeting or two of the other group. When I’m at these meetings, I notice people don’t have a lot to say to me and I feel a little out of place. I return to my new group which I have just joined and members of this group ask me what I learned. I don’t say much, but I do comment about them not being very friendly to me and they didn’t seem to want to explain much to me. I share that I felt uncomfortable at those meetings.  After this conversation gets shared many times, I hear from other members of the group that it is obvious that this group is trying to do things without our group’s approval or even knowledge. Now my group doesn’t trust the other group.

Later on I hear from a friend who belongs to the other group, the one I visited, that his group is wondering why I was at their meeting. He says something about my group’s motive to infiltrate their group and spy on what they are doing. I quickly sense there is no trust of my group by my friends group. And now we are into a conflict situation, based on assumptions and inferences, which no one is bothering to check out for accuracy.

All of this could be addressed and maybe even avoided if we would just realize that with change comes the need to communicate more than ever before. In a time of significant change, we cannot over-communicate. If someone had just asked me why I was at the meeting or explained to me that no one from the other group had ever come to their meetings before, perhaps I could have explained my desire to learn more about the two groups and how I could assist each of the groups in accomplishing their tasks.

But, by being silent and not asking questions or making comments, we created a completely different scenario than the reality of the situation. By saying nothing we were actually saying too much.

So, when you find yourself in a change situation, spend the time needed to become clear about individual intentions. Don’t assume or infer that your perceptions are the right perceptions.

Until next time, ask more questions when in doubt.