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

Communication Templates: II

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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

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

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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.
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When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass the sanity test.
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Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.
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At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
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Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is less risky.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
A man, standing, explaining something to a woman, seatedAnd on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

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