Agile communication vs Small Talk tactics

[mit deutscher Zusammenfassung] Last week I wrote about Small Talk and about being open to mean it, when you ask someone how they are. This aspect isn’t restricted to small talk. It’s about what agile communication is: Openness and honesty, interaction and authenticity. How can you be all that if your interactions are reduced to superficiality?

If you ask questions you don’t wanna know the answers to, you are not on eye-level with your audience or with your communication partner. You don’t take them seriously and that may make you untrustworthy. It has become a very own strategy though to „lie“ to people and to say things you don’t mean. I remember having read an example for intercultural misunderstanding once in a students book. It was about two students, probably in the US and one of them was Asian. They wanted to go grab a bite and the American student asked the Asian guy whether they should go to the Asian place to pick up their food. The Asian student said yes but meant no and they probably didn’t get best friends, because they didn’t understand each other. And everyone wondered how they should understand each other since they didn’t say what they actually wanted. Nowadays much has changed and I would guess that every day (and not in intercultural contexts) someone says yes to some of my suggestions actually meaning no. And honestly I have no clue who means yes or no. It has just become the new politeness never to say no. And the commitment rate is falling rapidly because nobody actually knows who wants to work together or getting a beer after work or something.
Further, sometimes you get asked serious questions and it’s not until very later you realize that they weren’t meant as questions to honestly be answered. Someone once praised me for always being so straight forward and honest and then asked me about my opinion about something and I honestly answered (and I had a pretty bad opinion about that case) and then they just said that I was a perfectionist and nothing would ever be good enough for me. What they really wanted was my applause for something. And probably they even knew that it wasn’t worth applauding for, so my applause would have taken them off the hook, because I always come straight forward – it wasn’t thought through at all, it seems.

How to put off people

Let’s be honest: We are in many communities not living in a democracy. Enterprises usually are not democratic. They don’t have to be. They could be and I believe that they probably would win from it. But there is no law or something that they should be democratic in any way. Astonishingly enough somehow it seems to be nice for an entrepreneur or a leader to look democratic and to include your employees. But it isn’t agile at all if you make it only look like: If you ask someone something, to be authentic you have to listen to them and take them seriously. Be on eye-level. That doesn’t mean you have to agree in every point but it means you genuinely think about it and you argue on the same level. The best argument becomes useless if the other side isn’t wholeheartedly in the (same) discussion.
Let me give you an example I came by some years ago in a workshop on conflict communication: A group of students comes to the professor and ask him, whether he can remove one member from the team, since she didn’t do anything for the assigned project. The professor told them to come see him in his office and let them present their case. They but some effort in their arguments. After that he told them, that there was no way he could remove anyone from a team that already got their assignment and that every student in the team would get the exact same grade and there were no exceptions to be made. Case closed.
The students were pissed. Well: Wouldn’t you be? You tell someone that you need help and they invite you to put all your arguments on the table and then they tell you that there never ever are any exceptions possible. What a waste of time!
Now, the professor couldn’t change the rules. I know that and that’s not what I’m proposing here. What I would have done in his place? I would have told the students bluntly at the very first time they came to me about this, that it won’t be possible to ban a student from an assignment and that it won’t be possible to differ the grades within the team. And then I would have invited the group to come to my office and talk about how we possibly could improve the teamwork with that difficult member. In my approach it would have been transparent in the very beginning what the students can expect from the meeting with me.

Lately I got the feeling that – in the small and the big picture – leading people far to often bury their heads in the sand instead of analyzing the problems and at least look for solutions. Listening to someone pointing at a problem doesn’t mean that you have to have a perfect solution ready. It means that you take the problem or its symptoms seriously and try to deal with it.
I would say that someone not asking how you feel can be more agile than someone who does but doesn’t care for the answer. Me personally, I prefer not to be asked if my answer doesn’t matter anyway. So I will try to keep my honesty and take my communication partners seriously. Talk to them on eye-level. Be transparent about what I can and cannot do. And always have an open mind. Thats the best basis I know for real collaboration.


Deutsche Zusammenfassung

Letzte Woche habe ich über Small Talk geschrieben und darüber, dass man oft nicht meint, was man sagt, beziehungsweise dass man nicht offen sagen soll, was man fühlt. Für agile Kommunikation scheinen mir aber gewisse Tugenden wichtig, die genau dem entgegen stehen: beispielsweise Offenheit, Ehrlichkeit und Authentizität.

Wenn man jemandem eine Frage stellt, soll man sich auch für die Antwort interessieren. Ist das nicht der Fall, so kommuniziert man nicht auf Augenhöhe. Wenn es aber stimmt, dass man im Small Talk vor lauter Höflichkeit immer öfter etwas sagt, was gar nicht stimmt, ergeben sich daraus Konsequenzen für die Zusammenarbeit. Ich habe es schon öfter erlebt, dass mir jemand zugestimmt hat, gar gesagt hat, dass wir zusammen ein neues Projekt in Angriff nehmen sollten oder auch nur, dass wir uns mal zu einem Kaffee treffen müssen. Die Personen haben das teilweise aber nur aus Höflichkeit gesagt, während sie in Realität gar kein Interesse daran hatten, mit mir zusammenzuarbeiten. Ich halte es für sehr legitim, dass man sich aussucht, mit wem man zusammenarbeiten oder Kaffee trinken will. Aber diese Situationen haben dazu geführt, dass ich mittlerweile gar nicht mehr weiss, wer ernsthaft an einer Zusammenarbeit interessiert ist und wer nicht. Allgemein scheint mir das Engagement und der Wille zur Zusammenarbeit in letzter Zeit abgenommen zu haben. Vielleicht gerade deshalb, weil sich niemand mehr sicher ist, ob die Zusage zu einer Zusammenarbeit wirklich ernst gemeint ist?

Unsere heutige Welt enthält viele Formen der Zusammenarbeit und nicht immer sind diese Formen demokratisch. Sie müssen es auch nicht sein: Niemand zwingt ein Unternehmen, die Meinung seiner Mitarbeitenden einzuholen. Manch ein Unternehmen könnte sicherlich viel gewinnen, wenn es mehr auf seine Mitarbeitenden hören würde. Aber die Unternehmen unterstehen nicht einem Demokratie-Gesetz. Anscheinend wirkt es aber gut, wenn Unternehmen sich den Anschein geben, als interessierten sie sich für die Meinung und das Wohlbefinden ihrer Mitarbeitenden. Es reicht aber leider nicht, nur zu fragen. Um wirklich agil zu kommunizieren und zusammenzuarbeiten muss man die Antworten seines Gegenübers auch ernst nehmen.
Nicht nur in Wirtschaftsunternehmen, auch in der Politik fallen mir einige Beispiele ein, wo es mir vorkommt, als werde da ein Vogel-Strauss-Spiel gespielt. Probleme werden nicht angegangen, sondern verleugnet oder klein geredet. Mag sein, dass die Welt selbst für die grössten Leader zu komplex geworden ist. Verschwinden tun die Probleme so trotzdem nicht.
Ich für mich versuche immer ehrlich zu sein mit meinen Kommunikationspartnerinnen und -partner, sie ernst zu nehmen und auf Augenhöhe mit ihnen zu kommunizieren. Ich versuche offen zu sein, auch für Probleme. In meiner Erfahrung ist das die beste Grundlage für eine fruchtbare Zusammenarbeit.

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