Confused? Part Three – Sideways & Twisted

Quick quiz: Are you typically a direct or sideways communicator?

OK, I suppose this requires a little bit of a definition. I am trying to break the habit of communicating by suggestion. It’s the style where I tell people something and expect them to take what I think is the next logical step. I want to be nice so I tell people I have a blog when in reality, I want them to go to and read my blog.

“Hi, I’m Sheila and I’m trying to break the habit of sideways communications.”….And then this is where you say, “Hi, Sheila.”

My mom, Ruth, was the master of this type of communicating. She didn’t want to appear demanding so she would create a “story” to get want she wanted. She’d say things like: “I didn’t know people wore boots in the summer.” Now as someone who spoke Ruth, I knew it was her attempt to get me to change to more appropriate footwear, and naturally, I wouldn’t respond.

I realized I was speaking Ruth. Rather than say, “I think I would be good for this new position, tell me more about it.” I’d go sideways, “Wow, are there any candidates for that job?” Hoping the person would say, “You know, this would be great for you.”

My favorite Ruth story is when she bought a house with my brother and sister-in-law. My mom is accustomed to having her home “company ready.” Within two days of moving, she was not happy with all of the boxes throughout the house. But, she didn’t say it. One afternoon while on the phone with me, she complained with some surprise that there were still all of these boxes. I just chuckled. She may have been 3000 miles away, but I know how she was. A few days later, when I called, there were still so many boxes. If there were a fire, she would not be able to get out of the house. She was starting to construct a story from which my brother and sister would be compelled get rid of the boxes. I checked in with her a week later. [I understand that you probably called her on a Sunday, then on a Thursday but for the sake of dramatizing a story timeline, it might be easier to say “a week later” to have the reader mentally add the time lapse subconsciously, rather than have the reader attempt to construct what later in the week looked like and have to reread the paragraph]

“Oh, I’m just fine,” she said cheerily. Then she whispered, “I don’t know what is wrong with your sister-in-law. She gave me a fire extinguisher.”

After I laughed I explained how she caused that. She continued unconvinced by my explanation, “Well, I am afraid of fire about the boxes….” I had to let her stay in Ruth World. It’s a place she’d been for decades, and I was not about to try to navigate her out of it.

However, Ruth is not an option as a business communication strategy. It is very important to understand directly what is going on. We are great at being direct when we are speaking for or about others, but not so much when it comes to ourselves. We tend to be risk averse and not show our hand for something we really want. How can anyone know what we need or want or our intention if we do not say it out loud directly to another person, especially if that person gets us closer to that goal? Besides, how is anyone going to know you believe you are qualified for a position, if you don’t tell them that you are?

Here are some things to consider for more effective and clearer communications:

  1. If you don’t understand the action of people around you that follows your directive, consider you are communicating sideways and people are reacting to the story you’ve created instead of what you want them to do.
  2. If you have difficulty understanding what someone is saying, you’ve got to speak up. For example: “Is there something you want us to do with this?”; “What are you asking?”; “I don’t understand how this relates to the discussion. Can you say more?”
  3. Do your own root cause analysis. What is really behind your request? For example, I like short direct emails. I receive about 100 emails for work daily and I like to be responsive and empty my inbox daily. So, rather than say, “send me short emails.” I can be a little more descriptive and say “I want to respond your needs as soon as possible. Please send me short emails.” This way, I have stated what I need and why it is of value to the people who need me to respond to their emails in a timely manner.

Time to practice. I am sitting in Starbucks as write this and a customer behind me is taking a live training course with the volume turned up on his laptop. Now I could say, “Wow that is an interesting course you are taking on configuration set up.” I do less sideways communicating these days and I just turned around and said, “Can you turn that down a little bit.” He apologized and lowered the volume. Wow, who knew?

I must use this new-found power for good.



Note: The dress I am wearing in the photo on the home page above belonged to my mother. She loved her job; my brother and I can both say the same thing and we loved that she showed us that was possible. This week’s post, is in memory of  my mom.

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