Here’s what happens when my long-standing fear of the “conversations never spoken” in the workplace collides with a fresh viewing of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. With my sincere apologies to Charles Dickens. –Art
After retiring for the evening, I had this strange, haunting feeling I wasn’t alone. I woke to see what looked like an image of my early career mentor—long since gone (not dead, just moved to Florida).
What was Maury doing in my room? I wondered.
In a haunting (there’s that word again) voice, I heard the image of Maury exclaim, “Art, I told you long ago, you would go as far as you could communicate. What part of that did you forget?”
“But Maury… ,” I stammered.
“Silence,” he commanded. “You forgot the lessons of taking on the tough discussions, and tonight, I’m here along with three of my friends to help you remember and make a difference.”
“I hardly think you are here. You’re nothing more than the undigested eggnog and cookies I had before going to bed. Now be quiet and let me sleep, Maury.”
“Be warned, Art. Tonight you will be visited by three ghosts—the Ghost of Conversations Unspoken Past, Present, and Future. The images you see are real, and it’s up to you to do something with these lessons. You are warned.”
And with that, Maury faded from view. I made a mental note to reach out to him tomorrow and see what he was doing haunting my dreams.
Dream Nightmare Continues as I Revisit My Past
After falling back asleep, I woke with a start to the sound of what seemed like hundreds of people talking simultaneously. As the sound faded, I saw yet another spectral image sitting in my room. Odd, what was my first manager, Pat, doing in my room?
“I am the Ghost of Conversations Unspoken Past, and tonight I will show you some examples of where you failed to speak up and what it cost the people around you,” she offered.
I made a mental note to reach back to Pat right after talking with Maury.
“OK, I offered. It seems this dream isn’t going to end unless I cooperate. Show me your visions, Pat, and let me get back to sleep,” I uttered in what I am sure was a tone of annoyance.
“Do I need to touch your robe or take your hand,” I asked?
“Of course not, she offered. We don’t do that anymore. Too many lawsuits. Just follow me.”
I jumped out of my bed and followed Pat out of my house and into the night air. Oddly, I saw visions of ghost-like figures gathered in groups and pairs, all conducting discussions.
“Who are they,” I asked.
“Those are professionals who have passed on without ever conducting the tough discussions that would have helped people, teams, and firms. They’re doomed to wander the earth late at night facing up to the consequences of their inaction and finally conducting those conversations,” offered the image of Pat.
Suddenly, I found myself back in a meeting room with people from my past. “I know those people,” I exclaimed! “Can they hear me?”
“No, it’s too late for them. You had your chance. The die was cast on their fates when you failed to live up to your responsibility to raise the difficult issues in front of you.”
And in a series of vignettes, I found myself reliving moments from my career.
- I saw the moment in time when I should have objected to that pet project of my boss. I was convinced it was all ego pushing him forward, and I was worried it would rob the resources from some initiatives critical to our future. I had been right in my conjecture as the firm poured precious gold into this initiative and failed to create a future. When the product died in the market, it took the firm and many great people with it.
- Next, I was in the room where one of my colleagues decided to step-into the gray-area of an ethical issue. That one ended with him being fired and our firm under investigation and subject to all sorts of negative press. I might have been able to dissuade him from taking that fateful step.
- And then, I’m in the room with the team and the VP, Tom, just in time to hear him say, “We’ll never compete in the low-end of that market. There’s no margin in it. We’ll leave that to the competitor.”
“Pat, you were there with me. We all knew Tom was wrong. Yet, none of us spoke up. Our competitor seized the market, and within five years, we left the space,” I said.
“Yes, and people lost their jobs, and some had to start over in their careers. One never recovered from that firm’s failure. He lost his health insurance, went untreated for a condition, and passed away. Why didn’t you challenge the strategy?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t feel it was my place. These are painful to see. Can I go home?” I asked.
“No, you have more work to do revisiting your past.”
And there I was, watching myself discuss the new hire I needed to make with my colleagues and boss. The one candidate was a slam-dunk on paper, but I was leery of his character. The other had some gaps in her employment. She had started and failed at a new business. And she had taken time to care for a sick relative for two years. Yet, I believed she was the right one. My colleagues disagreed. I bowed to their pressure.
“And what happened?” asked the image of Pat?
“The person I favored but didn’t hire went on to found a firm that changed our industry. She became an admired leader and very rich,” I shared.
“And what about the one you hired,” she asked.
“Yeah, he’s in jail today,” I said in a humble tone. But I was right about him.”
“What’s the value of being right when you don’t do anything about it?” asked the image of Pat.
And then she was gone.
The Spirit Takes Me on a Tour of the Challenging Discussions I’m Facing Today
Just as I rolled over and wondered about the weird dreams, I felt something change in the room. I opened my eyes, and there was my current boss.
“Yikes,” I said with a start. “Micki, what are you doing here?”
“Don’t be afraid. I’m not really here. They just needed someone’s image to work here tonight, so I’m the Ghost of Unspoken Conversations-Present. Let’s get this party started so that I can get out of here,” she said.
“What will we see tonight?” I asked.
“You’ll see those discussions in front of you now where you have the power to change the situation for the better if you will only find the courage to speak up,” she offered.
And in a journey similar to the one earlier this long evening, I faced several eerily familiar situations.
- I saw Barb working away. I had been delaying a challenging conversation with her on her performance because, frankly, I was intimidated by her.
- In the next scene, I was face to face with my own version of a significant strategic decision. I didn’t have the votes to gain support, and it was on my mind to not waste all my political capital on this one. Yet, I knew this was the best opportunity out there for us. I was hesitating and definitely in danger of letting it go.
- I saw myself sitting at my desk with my office door open, wondering why few people ever bothered to approach me. After all, I had an open-door policy.
- I saw a project team meeting where everyone was talking, and no one was listening. It looked and sounded like communication chaos.
- And then, I saw my team members one by one, and I recognized they needed and wanted my help and that I was often too busy chasing the urgent to focus on them.
That knot in my stomach was aching even more, and then I saw a glimpse of my entire team around a conference room table, mostly with long faces as I presided over what must have been one of my operations meetings. I was legendary for leading the most challenging sessions in the firm. And now, I felt guilty. I wondered whether I was creating any value in those sessions.
“Image of Micki, tell me what you see. Can I change things?”
“My view of the future is hazy. But what I do see is an empty room. The table and chairs are gone, and the lights are out.”
“No,” I uttered and then woke to a start to an empty room just as the third promised ghost materialized in front of me.
The Unspoken Conversations Create a Nightmarish Future
“I don’t recognize you. You must be the Ghost of Conversions Unspoken Yet to Come,” I said.
I think the spirit nodded, and off we went on our journey. That’s the last time I have egg nog and cookies before bed, I thought to myself.
We traveled in silence, viewing visions in the murky distance. Yet, they were clear enough to be both startling and horrifying.
- I saw good friends, today’s colleagues packing up their desks and leaving gainful employment to face uncertain job and life prospects. I see one person dependent upon this employment for health insurance, food, and shelter to feed a family, now relegated to wandering the streets asking for help.
- I see someone clearly in distress trying to talk to me, but I’m too busy focusing on my screen and responding to texts to pay attention. I see over and over again, the demoralizing impact of conversations left unspoken. From dejected teams to people with their heads down and shoulders slumped.
- I see a collage of failed brands, struggling projects, and finally a vision of myself, alone, in a dark, dingy room with my head on a desk.
And I develop this deep feeling of regret. In a panic, I ask the ghost, “Are these visions that must be, or can they still be altered?”
The ghost never answers.
And then I wake up.
I Vow to Do Something Different!
I dash to the window, pull up the shade, and am immediately blinded by the bright sunshine.
“Good morning, new day!” I shout as I open the window.
A glorious, wonderful, new day! It’s a Monday, and I can start fresh today, and I vow to take on the challenging discussions immediately! If I learned anything from those spirits and weird dreams, I know that I can create value at the moment for people by offering to coach, providing carefully developed feedback, and raising alternative points of view when the stakes are high.
I know that my silence is more damaging and deafening than anything I might try and say as long as my attentions are positive for all parties.
Mrs. Ketter, sweeping her stairs across the street, looks at me with suspicion as I stand in front of the open window looking like an idiot who had a rough night.
“Good morning, Mrs. Ketter!” I shout! “It’s a great day for challenging conversations!” I add as she harumphs and returns inside her home.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Thanks for putting up with me as I shamelessly co-opt Dickens’ storyline for the positive purpose of making a point. In case that point is not clear, know that it’s the unspoken conversations on the tough topics surrounding strategy, decisions, people, and performance that should frighten all of us. It’s terrifying to consider the cost of conversations left unspoken.
May the Spirits of Conversations Left Unspoken pass by your room with a nod and acknowledgment of “Good job. They’re tough discussions, but those are where the value is created. Keep it up and someone will write a story about you!
Some Resources to Help
- I write about succeeding with challenging conversations and feedback a great deal. Enjoy the selection of articles by visiting those links.
- Our Crushing It with Challenging Conversations 0n-demand program never sleeps. Or, e-mail for information on the next live-online session.
- Is there a Feedback Boot Camp in your future?