It’s not uncommon in communication for a hidden message to take on more importance than what’s actually said.
Example: you’re a workshop technician and you’re waiting for your colleague, Tibor, to finish some welding so you can assemble a cryostat that needs to be delivered to an experiment next week. Tibor’s work has been held up by a late delivery that’s beyond his control. You’re probably going to have to make up the time yourself by working overtime. You say to him:
“So, Tibor, you’re still behind with the welding. I’m going to have to work overtime yet again.” Hidden message: “You’re incapable of meeting deadlines. Our work’s behind schedule because of you and it’ll be your fault if I have to work overtime. I obviously can’t trust you.”
Instead, you could say:
“Tibor, I can see that you’ve only been able to do half the welding, which means I won’t be able to finish the assembly on time. Why don’t we both work equal amounts of overtime so we can meet the deadline?” Hidden message: “Neither of us is to blame for the situation, so let’s try to share the consequences equally. Let’s work together to meet the deadline.”
Although the objective facts are the same, the message is very different.
Another example: You’re the secretary of a working group and you’ve forgotten to call the technical coordinator to find out when she’s available. You say to your assistant:
“Markus, call Stefania for me quickly. I didn’t have time yesterday evening.” Hidden message: “I’m allowed to give you orders because I’m your supervisor.”
You could ask him to do the same thing in a more respectful way:
“Markus, I’m sorry, I forgot to call Stefania again yesterday evening. Could you do it for me, please?” In other words: “I may be your supervisor, but I admit that I’m disorganised and I know I can count on you.”
People often don’t realise the effect their words have on their relationships with their colleagues, conveying a lack of respect, self-importance, blame or even threats. We remember the tone of a conversation long after we’ve forgotten what was said. Try to remember the last difficult conversation you had with someone. You probably don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but you remember clearly whether the tone was scornful, threatening or very respectful.
These examples show that the way you communicate betrays your attitude to your colleagues. Be aware of the effects of how you speak and learn to decode the messages hidden behind what others say.
If you’d like to comment on any of my articles or suggest a topic that I could write about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at Ombuds@cern.ch.