I was chatting with Tony yesterday about “shadow conversations”. I’ve noticed that when I’m talking about Beyond Branding and its agenda of increasing integrity, I keep getting told something like this:
That’s all very well as a concept, but how do we deal with bosses like mine who only talk about the bottom line/hate being criticised/can’t be trusted (insert your own variation here)?
I recognise it’s a tough world out there and it’s not always easy to take the path of virtue. But it’s struck me that in all these meetings, these hostile bosses are not present, they are simply referred to.
Then I thought of the times I’ve worked with bosses and found that, curiously, they do the same thing vis a vis their staff eg
Of course I agree with that, but you try getting my staff to level with me/understand etc,
These are all shadow conversations in which we humans scare ourselves with what often turn out to be untested assumptions about others, instead of focusing on our own heartfelt beliefs. And such conversations are highly infectious; once one person starts the idea, a kind of mass hysteria quickly sets in.
I’m not suggesting that we never attempt to forecast the possible impact of what we might say on others, but I do think a lot of us put far too much energy into it. The fact is, we won’t know until we try.
I also believe it’s characteristic of many people to act like they don’t want to be challenged when, at a deeper level they are searching for someone to give them a limit. Their outward behaviour is swollen, but underneath the bluster they’re really saying (like Jim Carrey in The Mask) “Somebody Stop Me!”
Some of the most energising moments in therapy groups I’ve been in have been those when someone punctures an atmosphere of collusion and challenges the behaviour of another. Sure, sometimes the effect is incendiary, but often the person challenged is open to the intervention and appreciates the intervention. A lot of this has to do with the care and skill with which the challenge is made… there’s a world of difference between “Oh for goodness sake, you are so boring” and “I really want to understand what you’re saying and I notice that my attention is starting to drift…” I don’t like to issue recipe cards on how to do this, but starting with the word I and describing your own feelings/responses is generally better than starting with you and labelling the other person’s behaviour is generally a good idea.
Numbers and proof
The area in which I find the most shadow conversations at the moment is that of numbers. I keep finding myself invited to shadow conversations about it being impossible to get business to look beyond short-term numbers. This has a charge for me as I passionately believe that the numbers are often a woefully inadequate guide to the health of an organisation. But, in truth, I can’t remember the last time anyone actually told me that the bottom line was all that counted to him/her. But if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard of all the other people who do… well I would have quite a few quid now.
Some people, of course, hate being challenged. That – to me – is a good reason to limit such unproductive behaviour to when they are actually in the room being obstinate or hostile. What really gives such characters a kind of malign power is that they are brought to countless other meetings by shadow conversation. In ad agencies, people were constantly invoking the tiresome client’s likely response to sit on ideas before they had a chance to be expressed. Needless to say, such agencies were lousy at really challenging their clients and experts in sycophancy. Take a look at most advertising and you’ll see that spirit manifested in ill-considered, implausible pitches to us sceptical and bored consumers.
I blogged about King Looie Katz a few days ago to illustrate the turnkey potential of a single expression of honesty in cultures of sycophancy. But I’m not saying we can expect such positive consquences, or that we always have to take such risks.
We can start in the parts of our lives where we do feel relatively secure, and get some practice at speaking the unspoken. I will be learning and relearning how to do this for the rest of my life!