Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 7;   February 13, 2008: Communication Templates: II

Communication Templates: II

by

Communication templates are patterns that are so widely used that once identified, nearly everyone recognizes them. In this Part II we consider some of the more toxic — less innocuous — communication templates.

Communication templates are patterns that we all know and use together. When we initiate a communication using a recognized template, we expect responses within the bounds of that template. Most communication templates are innocuous — you can review some examples in "Communication Templates: I," Point Lookout for February 6, 2008.

The portrait of Alexander Hamilton that appears on the U.S. 10-dollar note

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, as it appears on the U.S. 10-dollar note. Born on the island of Nevis, British West Indies, January 11, 1757, he emigrated, at the age of 15, to what was to become the United States. He led an illustrious political career, which included a long-running and progressively more bitter feud with Aaron Burr. In 1804, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, and though Hamilton was reluctant to participate, and attempted to settle the challenge by alternate means, the standards of honor of the day led him to meet Burr on the dueling grounds of Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804. Both men fired their pistols, but Hamilton missed. He was struck by a shot from Burr's 0.56 caliber dueling pistol, and died the next day. A sitting Vice President, Burr was indicted for murder, but he was never tried, in part, because he fled to South Carolina. His career later ended in disgrace, following an increasingly bizarre chain of events that led to his acquittal on a technicality on charges of treason in 1807.

In analogous social circles today, duels, in their violent form, are rare, but they persist in verbal form in most organizations. In dueling incidents, the challenged often feel as boxed-in as Hamilton felt in 1804 — equally damned whether or not they decide to engage. And today, as in 1804, the careers of both participants in duels are in jeopardy, win or lose. Read more about the duel between Burr and Hamilton. Photo courtesy United States Treasury.

And then there are the less innocuous communication templates. They create problems both for the initiator and the responder, though the problems are different for each.

For example, when one person insults another, many regard an equally insulting reply as "justified," whether or not returning another insult would be constructive in that context. The initiator's problem is the received insult; the responder's problem is that a reflexive insulting response might be less effective than a more diplomatic and powerful alternative.

Here are three examples of communication templates that are generally destructive.

Anger in email
The sender creates and sends an angry, snide, or abusive message; the recipient responds in kind. Back and forth they go, escalating in tone and risk.
As either sender or recipient, making a phone call or a personal visit would be far more constructive. If that isn't possible, arranging one by email is a second-best choice. As the recipient, another option is ignoring the message, if it can be ignored. If the message is part of a pattern of sender-initiated angry exchanges, seek advice from your superiors. What if the sender is your superior? That will have to be another article.
Exclusion
Excluding someone from a meeting or conversation in an obvious manner conveys a message. Within the template, the excluded fights to be included, or retaliates with a similar exclusion move, or accepts lowered status.
Rarely does the excluded approach the excluder to talk about hurt feelings, or the harm to the organization or degraded morale. Although analogous conversations among peer confidants can be soothing, they're usually ineffective. On the other hand, almost any action taken by bystanders, on behalf of the excluded, would be helpful. When bystanders fail to act, they give the excluder a free pass to use the tactic again.
Power flaunting
Destructive communication
templates create problems
both for the initiator and
the responder, though
the problems are
different for each
Reminding those over whom we have organizational power that we can exercise that power can be a form of threat. The subordinate role in this template is one of deference. We defer, we placate, we hide and we deliver only the good news.
Power flaunting encourages slavish devotion and concealment of truth. It discourages risk taking, creativity, innovation, proactive damage control, and questioning the status quo. In organizational terms, it is one of the more expensive templates in use. Remaining in organizations where power flaunting is common is career-risky. Supervisors who notice power flaunting among subordinates would do well to intervene.

These are but three examples of toxic communication templates. Watch closely, and you'll surely find more in short order. And you just might use them a little less often yourself. Go to top Top  Next issue: Responding to Threats: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrentUwSqNTAEAUyoAEvner@ChacZTXdIuChmYsfNmfpoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Planet earthCorrosive Buts
When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
A happy dogWhy Dogs Wag Their Tails
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
Carrot and stickIrrational Self-Interest
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
The game of chess, a strategic metaphorNasty Questions: I
Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenqzMERkKjNcLXHdwgner@ChacsTbMkUrdxsQEpNcToCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.