Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 10;   March 11, 2009: Masked Messages

Masked Messages

by

Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. A textbook example of the snatchback can be found in the closing statement of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at his impeachment trial: "I want to apologize to you for what happened, but I can't because I don't think — because I didn't do anything wrong." (see "Rod Blagojevich impeachment trial closing statements," at WikiSource) In this form, he begins by delivering what sounds like an apology, but then he withdraws it. Prior to the withdrawal, he leads the listener into an apology experience, which cannot be fully undone by the withdrawal. Photo by Erik Abderhalden courtesy Wikipedia.

For protection, to express contempt, or to accomplish by subterfuge what one cannot accomplish openly, we mask the true meaning of our communications. The masking technique depends on the message and the audience, but the practice is rarely constructive. It usually makes or expresses trouble for the relationship.

Here are some examples of techniques for masking messages.

Backdoor bragging
Example: "It's painful for me to attend her meetings, because my own are so much more orderly and effective."
This isn't merely a description of pain; rather, it is a claim about the quality of the speaker's meetings. But the claim is buried in a subordinate clause, where it's far less intrusive.
Non-apology apologies
Example: "If what I said offended anyone, I'm very sorry."
This isn't a true apology, because it doesn't concede that what was said was offensive; it dissociates the speaker from what was said; and it isn't directed to anyone specifically. It's simply an expression of regret. See "Demanding Forgiveness," Point Lookout for June 18, 2003, for more.
Implicit accusations
Example: "You can join the team if you promise not to pout if your ideas aren't accepted."
If the accusation had been stated directly, it would have read: "I've noticed that you pout if your ideas are not accepted. You can join the team if you promise to behave." The implicit form creates an urge to refute it, which risks validating the claim. See "Dealing with Implied Accusations," Point Lookout for January 10, 2001, for more.
Masked messages usually
make or express trouble
for the relationship
Damning with faint praise
Example: "Your leadership lately has been very useful."
This message begins in the right direction, but ends with a dull thud. For extra thud, the speaker might pause before "lately" or after "very" as if to be searching for sufficiently neutral words.
Backdoor damning
Example: "On project after project, he has demonstrated an outstanding ability to conjure up plausible-sounding explanations for even the most complicated blunders."
Here the critique is hidden behind what appears to be praise.
Fake questions
Example: "If you were to take responsibility for sorting out this mess, how would you do it?"
By seducing the listener with a fake hypothetical question, the speaker hopes to nudge the listener toward a commitment to take responsibility for a mess.
Snatchbacks
Example: "I'd like very much to offer you a promotion…but it had to go to another department."
A snatchback happens when the speaker begins with a welcome pronouncement, but ends by explaining something else or providing an excuse. The message recipient experiences the positive pronouncement for a second or two — an experience that is never truly erased.

Message masking is a habit for some; a deliberate choice for others. Both are corrosive to relationships. Noticing the pattern in the communications of others can help you reduce it in your own. Go to top Top  Next issue: Pet Peeves About Work  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? rbrenOYwVoIHQACpqeztmner@ChacAKFGIScbdleVgQqpoCanyon.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:

A rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park, United StatesLet Me Finish, Please
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
FeedbackFeedback Fumbles
"Would you like some feedback on that?" Uh-oh, you think, absolutely not. But if you're like many of us, your response is something like, "Sure, I'd be very interested in your thoughts." Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult?
Henry David ThoreauEncourage Truth Telling
Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
The silhouette of a famous fictional detectiveSome Truths About Lies: I
However ethical you might be, you can't control the ethics of others. Can you tell when someone knowingly tries to mislead you? Here's Part I of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
A foxhunt in VirginiaExasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhWjYgZAKBlZFCOdDner@ChacpbvBvdgZQOXOdgEPoCanyon.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

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.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value!! ! Check it out!
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.