Archive for December, 2009

Sources of Upset Heightened by the Holiday Season

December 15, 2009

I was somewhat disbelieving when my friend and fellow organizational consultant, Ellie Byers, told me there are really only three sources of negative emotions, or upsets:

  1. Withheld communications
  2. Unfulfilled expectations
  3. Thwarted intentions

However, after thinking about this for a while, I came to agree with her.  Ellie was unsure of the source of this wisdom, so I would be glad to give attribution if someone knows the creator.

Most of us are familiar with the tensions and upsets that can accompany family gatherings at holiday time.  I will use such family occasions to explore each of these sources in separate writings, beginning with the first on the list.  I will also relate this information to the organizations we work in.

Withheld communications can occur in any form of communication, be it spoken, written, or implied with body language.  It does not necessarily mean that no communication has occurred.  Rather, it means that the communication that has occurred is not clear, direct, or complete.

  • Communication that is not clear occurs when we do not take into account how the person we are communicating with will hear what we have to say.  Correcting this involves learning to speak to the listening of our audience.  Not everyone thinks as we do, or knows what we know, so what we say is not always understood as we intend.  Not communicating clearly can lead to conflict through misunderstanding.
  • Communication that is not direct occurs when we fear there will be a consequence for speaking our truth. Direct communication may have brought criticism or anger upon us in the past, and therefore we learn to temper our honesty to prevent that from happening again.  Indirect communications often carry the label of being “passive-aggressive”, meaning the indirectness, which is a passive behavior, leaves the listener feeling badly, which is an aggressive outcome.  Negativity or disapproval conveyed through body language is often a type of passive-aggressive, indirect communication.  Not communicating in a direct fashion can lead to conflict and resentment.

  • Communication that is not complete combines both unclear and indirect communications.  The speaker makes assumptions that the listener will “fill in the blanks” either because they assume the listener thinks as they do or because the avoidance of all details protects the speaker from the judgment or anger of the listener.  In other situations, incomplete communications are designed to set up the listener for failure.  This style of communication can be confusing at best, and dangerous at worst.

Withheld communication is typically self-protecting, even when it seems to be just a case of laziness.  However, attempting to avoid conflict by withholding communication usually backfires and creates an even greater conflict.  Generally, the tendency to communicate this way has roots in our family of origin.  A punitive work place culture can also foster withheld communications as people strive to protect their position and ego within a team or organization.

A suggestion for good listening, particularly when there is the potential for upset: repeat in your own words, and without emotional weight, what the person has just said to you, then verify you have heard them correctly.  This will accomplish two things: The person will feel validated by the fact that you are sincerely listening to them, and you will be certain you heard them correctly.  You can reverse the process by politely requesting someone repeat back to you what he or she just heard you say.

As we enter the holiday season, return to our family of origin as an adult, and possibly add extended family to the mix, experiment with being direct and honest in all interactions.  Honesty does not equal rudeness, it means taking into account the listener, and being absolutely clear about the result you wish to create through your conversations.  When extended family comes together, there is usually a grace period when everyone is on his or her best behavior.  Eventually a button is pushed, a trigger is tripped, and the family falls back in to the communication patterns of yore.  Directness, tempered with a caring tone, can defuse this dynamic.

Speaking one’s truth is freeing and far less complicated, as one never needs to remember the nuance of previous interactions.  People often have a greater capacity for the truth than we give them credit for.  Training them that you are a clear communicator will elevate the respect you receive in the family, and in the work place.

Stay tuned for my next blog on the second source of upset: unfulfilled expectation.