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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Surly Silence as Communication?

Everybody talks about communication, and everybody does something about it – but frequently not very well.

This is a crucial matter for project managers, because the essence of the job is to get diverse people you don’t know well to commit personally to doing stuff they’re not certain of when they have plenty of other work to do, and to trust other people in unfamiliar situations. There are too many complexities and relationships for the project manager to directly supervise each moment of each one.

The manager, who by definition doesn’t do all the work himself/herself, must convince those delegated to do it to agree, understand, commit, follow through and work cooperatively. That is done by persuasion, negotiation, delegation, explanation and all the other “tion” words. In short, it is accomplished by continuous use of appropriate means of communication.

A Basic Tool for the Project Manager

This is universally true in organizations, but especially true in projects. A project is temporary and time-pressured, is staffed by a team drawn from various parts of an organization (and often some from outside the organization), and involves some significant measure of innovation, risk and uncertainty.

For all those reasons, the project manager must understand communication and take the time to learn it well and practice it consistently. That’s not easy, considering the time it requires of a superbusy person heavily focused on specific tasks and issues.

So, let’s understand communication. It may seem to be a Mickey Mouse question to ask: What is it, and how does it work? As you'll see, that's not Mickey Mouse at all. Take a moment to scribble a quick, one-sentence definition, then read the rest of this message and see what you think. Blogs are for debate, so feel free to comment if you differ.

Let’s start with this: One of your team members generally responds to questions and suggestions with surly silence. Is this person communicating, and if so how well?

Seriously? Surly silence as communication?
What Are We Measuring?

The question “Is the glass half full or half empty?” often is used to trigger discussion about measuring progress or loss in some matter worth talking about. Those conversations don’t always accomplish much of anything, because the real, underlying question is: “What is the glass half full or half empty OF?” What exactly are we measuring?

Apply this thinking to our examination of communication in projects. Do you consider communication to be good when a high volume of information is being issued by one, both or all of the parties to a communication transaction?

President Ronald Reagan was called “The Great Communicator” because of his skill in persuading mass audiences. Here it was the attractive vocal values and manner of delivery that were considered effective communication, and not necessarily the amount or meaning of the information in the messages.

A different school of thought is that listening is the primary skill of good communicators. Good listening can convince the speaker that the receiver is paying attention and is showing respect. That encourages the speaker to return the favor, and be more open to agreeing to what the listener wants.

Looking for Meaning

     For project managers, the more meaningful understandings of communication  emphasize the quality of any exchange rather than the quantity of words invested in it.

 When you’re talking quality, there’s no simple measure such as the number of words or items, or the volume of information. Quality requires that the moving parts of the process be clearly identified, and that the contribution of each be specified and tracked.

In personal communication, Albert Mehrabian’s famous study, “Silent Messages,” tells us that meaning of words and vocal values such as volume, expression, etc. can be trumped by body language. More than half the effective outcome of the conversations Mehrabian studied was determined by how the participants read each other’s behavior.

Think about it. While a person is talking, we’re evaluating clues – often unconsciously – that cause us to draw conclusions about the meaning and about the very person, not infrequently in contradiction of the person’s purpose and intent. We may detect insincerity and not be sure why.

How vital this is for a project manager! You’re busy as can be, heavily dependent upon all kinds of people, positioned as the responsible party for all kinds of expectations that rarely are very controllable by you.

As a communicator, the project manager must be able to articulate effectively, understand clearly and accurately, respond in the right way to the real messages.

Not Nice, But Effective

So, about our surly, silent teammate. Is he/she communicating? You bet, and very well. The person is making super clear to everyone a strongly-held intention NOT to engage, not to cooperate. Won't help and won't be liked, but can't be misunderstood.

What to do about such situations is a rich prospect for examinationof collaboration. For today’s purpose, suffice it to say that you have here a lousy teammate engaged in a very effective act of communication.     


  1. Jim, I look forward to your suggestions about dealing with this eloquent silence. My strategy is generally to ask, off line. I had a person in a class once who did the surly silence act. When I did ask him, he gave me an quite an earful about how much he hated beng a supervisor, and being forced to attend this class. Of course, all I could do was listen actively to him, but that was all it took. He was the class star participation-wise for the rest of the program. Asking questions and listening to the answers are often underutilized communication tools.

  2. Thanks, Susan.

    My response to this "eloquent silence" (thanks for the elegant term) parallels yours.

    The unthinking reaction by the person's manager and colleagues is to leave a careful envelope of empty space around the nonparticipant, or to take frontal action against the behavior by demanding a reversal.

    But there is a reason behind every behavior, every "attitude" -- which in reality is a pattern of specific actions. The thoughtful and confident leader (or co-worker) will initially take the approach Susan took: Demonstrate respect and concern by asking and listening.

    In Susan's case, that accomplished the result, at least in the short-term situation she was directly concerned about. But what if it doesn't? If the person is so embittered that the uncoopeerative behavior continues, the empathy must be reinforced by discipline.

    In short, the individual contributor is just as responsible to the organization as the senior person is. It is part of the manager's resonsibility to ensure that each person understands and accepts that responsibility. "You are on this staff because the people who pay us all consider us valuable in providing value to the organization. Let's talk about what YOUR side of that bargain calls for."

    In the end, the person must understand and openly acknowledge that responsbility, and express the specific actions that will carry it out. The manager's job is to assist and support -- and enforce.