We all have “undiscussables”—things we think and feel but usually don’t say. Whether or not we decide to share those issues, however, is a different matter. Chris Argyris, American business theorist, believed that if organizations would talk safely and openly about their issues and concerns, then immense learning would take place that would allow individuals, teams, and organizations to solve problems, improve decision making, and increase their overall effectiveness. No one will argue with that, but the operative word is “safely.”
Years ago, when I was training at an electric generating station in the Midwest, someone in class said, “We’ve got major undiscussables here!” Naturally, I pressed for an example. The participants in the class told me that the company procedure for obtaining materials and resources to fix things at the plant was a major obstacle to getting the work done and keeping the turbines online and generating electricity. “So,” I asked, “what do you do when things break down?”
They all laughed and said, “Oh, we have the ‘Rat Hole!’”
“We’ll tell you, but if you ever tell anyone, we’ll lock you up there forever!” I promised I wouldn’t say anything.
My class members said that the Rat Hole was a secret room deep in the recesses of the plant stocked with equipment, tools, and resources that they had easy access to. There were welding rods, asbestos clean-up suits, gloves, cleaning fluid, mops, buckets--you name it, they had it all stocked away. When I pointed out to them the costs involved in maintaining a “duplicate” storeroom, their only response was, “That’s what we have to do to get the job done and keep things working.”
When I asked them if they had ever brought up this problem with their managers, they responded in the negative, “There are consequences for doing that around here!” I was told. Obviously, the inability to bring up concerns safely had large financial ramifications for this company. Failing to speak up always comes at a cost.
Please note: I am not recommending that whatever you hold to be “undiscussables” should always be shared. (Those of us with significant others have learned this the hard way!) Nevertheless, it is wise to stop and think about what might be appropriate to share, or what is better left unsaid.
Here are a number of questions you might ask yourself to determine whether you should share your thoughts:
Will things improve if I share this, or not?
It is important to objectively examine the risks and benefits of sharing what you are thinking. If the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, then venturing to share your concerns might be well worth the effort. If not, it will likely be best to keep your thoughts to yourself.
What story do I tell myself or others to justify not providing feedback?
We all have a story or reason for not speaking up. Sometimes our stories are true and sometimes they are convenient excuses to avoid dealing with a pressing problem. Examining your story will allow you to assess its accuracy. You need to ask yourself, “Is what I am telling myself absolutely true?” All you need to disprove any judgment is one piece of data that goes contrary to what you believe.
What data or evidence exists in support of my story?
You must realize that in the absence of data we usually make it up, and often with a negative spin. If there is no data, then perhaps your judgments and ensuing feelings and thoughts are keeping you from stepping up and discussing the issue. Lack of facts usually means your reasoning for not speaking up might be inaccurate.
How often and with what degree of emotional intensity do I talk about potentially sensitive issues?
If you are continuing to talk about the same issue frequently and with a high degree of emotion, then you are probably sapping your emotional strength and that of everyone around you. You either need to talk out an issue and make a plan for discussing it with the appropriate person or let it go and move past it. Continuing to rehash a painful issue keeps those negative feelings and emotions from dissipating and negatively impacts you and those around you.
Do I discuss certain issues with everyone except the person I really need to talk to?
This is also a good indication that you need to address the issue. Your friends and family will listen for a while, but constantly bringing up an unresolved issue will become tiresome to the point that people will avoid listening to you, and you will be no closer to solving the problem.
How stressed out or utterly frustrated are you?
If you are on the verge of leaving your present position although you really would rather not, then it is time to take the plunge and talk about the issue with someone who can do something about your concerns. Taking note of where you are on your “fed-up” scale will help you determine if you are ready to do what you need to do to resolve the issue.
Has the person I need to speak with reacted negatively or emotionally in the past?
One of the most frequent justifications people offer for not speaking up in a business setting is the fear of negative consequences such as making your manager angry--which shows up as yelling, name calling or some form of belittlement. And there is also the fear of retaliation, such as missing out on a promotion, being fired, being given difficult assignments, or not receiving a raise. If these are your thoughts, you need to consider whether the relationship or the situation would be improved by speaking up, rather than just leaving things how they are presently.
If this person has never reacted negatively to feedback in the past, then you will have to admit to yourself that you don’t really know if they will react negatively in this situation. You might also ask yourself why you are assuming they might react negatively. Rumor? Past experience? Other people’s experiences? Objectively examine the source of your negative assumptions and the negative feelings that accompany those thoughts. If you lack evidence that negative consequences will occur, then perhaps it is worth the effort to speak up.
I’m sure that you can generate other questions that will help you to objectively assess your situations more objectively. The fact is, we all have issues that we judge to be undiscussable, some of which really are better left unspoken. Other concerns--if they negatively impact our results, our relationships, or the level of respect we are currently experiencing--may be worth talking about. Behaviors and work processes will never improve unless concerns can be identified and discussed. If an issue really matters, most people want to know about it. That, after all, is how things get better. If you had broccoli in your teeth, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Only you can determine if taking the plunge will be worth the reward that follows.