You are sitting around the conference table. An issue has just been raised that is cause for concern. Suddenly, there is a notable lack of eye contact among the team members. People begin to talk in roundabout ways:
“It must have fallen through the cracks.”
“Someone dropped the ball on that one.”
“There was some trouble delivering to the client.”
Stop right there. The discussion has just degenerated into a third-party conversation. That is, the speaker is not talking directly to the person(s) involved in the issue at hand. This is classic conflict avoidance: the speaker is uncomfortable addressing a difficult topic, so he or she resorts to vague, ambiguous statements. But, while this may be easier for the speaker, it is unreservedly bad for business in two distinct ways.
First, third-party conversations raise obstacles to making decisions and finding solutions. Take another look at the three phrases above:
- “It must have fallen through the cracks.” WHAT exactly fell through the cracks? WHO missed a key task? HOW did the mistake happen?
- “Someone dropped the ball on that one.” WHO dropped the ball? WHY did they drop the ball? WHAT were the circumstances or mitigating reasons?
- “There was some trouble delivering to the client.” WHAT was the nature of the trouble? WHO failed to deliver? WHY was there a delay or problem?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, how can you effect a resolution? How can you avoid the problem being repeated in the future? Third-party conversations make it hard to get the facts you need to move forward. Time is wasted as people dance around the elephant in the room. Misunderstandings often occur because people don’t know exactly what has happened or who was responsible or what the consequences are.
Second, third-party conversations erode team trust. Trust is built on honesty and integrity. Not being able to look someone in the eye to ask a question or raise a concern is anything but open and transparent. This does not mean you should be offensive, confrontational, or disrespectful. It simply means replacing vague circumlocutions with direct questions. Be honest and ask the questions you need to ask. For example:
“John, your team was scheduled to deliver by the end of the month. The client is upset because delivery was delayed five days. Can you tell us what happened?”
“Claire, I understood that you were driving this initiative, but we aren’t seeing the expected results. What is the current status?”
Direct questions and statements open the door to direct responses. You might discover that people’s expectations were different or that an unforeseen problem arose or that there was a misunderstanding between people. Certainly, you might get pushback or defensiveness or even anger. You could hear a simple and unadorned apology. Regardless of the response, you now have the facts you need to decide how to move ahead.
But there is more at work here than that. By being direct, you have established that you are working together as a team where it is safe to be honest and open. You all recognize that problems occur, and you have affirmed by your very directness that it is acceptable to talk about them.
When a team truly decides that they can be honest with each other and that even difficult matters can be discussed openly, the nature of the conversation changes dramatically. It becomes more relaxed and informal. Conversations go faster, which speeds up the decision-making process. There is a greater sense of collegiality because team members are working together for the good of the business.
So, the next time you are in a team meeting and you find that people (maybe even you!) aren’t willing to look each other in the eyes and suddenly everyone is resorting to vague statements, take a deep breath and say firmly, “Hold everything, please. We’re not being clear here – and we need to be. Our business depends upon it.”
Third-party conversations avoid specifics: they avoid talking to specific people about specific problems and, therefore, they fail to reach specific solutions.