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NO OBLIQUE-SPEAK: Part I – Six Keys to Effective Communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

–  Bernard Shaw


What follows is Part I of a four-part essay on corporate communication. While the basic information has universal application, the focus is on the communication concerns of fast-paced, early stage, entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial ventures.  

Position Statement

Business (life) Means Building and Maintaining Relationships

1.        Create a Culture of Security, Acceptance, and Respect (SAR)

When I was completing a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Michigan School of Education—a long time ago—it was drilled into our heads that, rather than truly listen when spoken to, most people half listen while they rehearse what they’re going to say when it’s their turn to speak. As a result, the subtleties of language are often missed.  Things that go unnoticed, like a raised eyebrow, a smirk, a shoulder shrug, a shoe scuff, and darting eyes—the italics of conversation—are as meaningful and defining as a shout, a cry, or a whisper. Miss them and you miss the meaning behind the words. Throw on top of that our reluctance to use unvarnished and to-the-point language and you can see the truth in Shaw’s quote, above.

Trust is an Issue         

There is a nurture vs. nature argument here that I’ll skip for now. Regardless of origin, we, as a society (Species?), tend to be skeptical and, increasingly, cynical. We question what we hear—and sometimes what we see. “What’s the angle?” “I’m not sure she actually meant what she said.” “Look me in the eye and say that, again.” “Ummm, I wonder.” And, who can ever forget the battle of wits in the poison scene between Vizzini and The Man in Black from the movie, “Princess Bride.” When acceptance, respect and the overall security of a relationship are questioned, we, like Vizzini and The Man in Black, think, plan and act according to our interpretation of true intentions…face value no longer has much value.

Darwinian or not, in business, particularly in a start-up venture, it is imperative that all parties truly trust one another. Management must speak clearly and directly at all times AND encourage all employees to do likewise.  Shoestring budgets and—not-long-enough—sixty-hour weeks permit only the thinnest margin of error. Let me make it very clear that this does not suggest that bullying, rudeness, disrespectful or petulant behavior is excusable; that is never the case.  The default must be that:

  • our relationship is solid and secure
  • we accept each other as individuals
  • we respect each other’s talents and contributions



Signed:  ________________________

The Tale of Two Employees

Nobody Ever Told Me…

Let me tell you a sad story. When I was asked to build a company within a company—to be an intrapreneur—I was given a considerable budget and a fair amount of freedom to assemble a quality “A” team. I could build the team by recruiting outside or, if I chose, I could interview and make offers to candidates currently employed by the parent company. Human Resources, on the lookout for possible matches, suggested one particular individual from the parent pool. The individual had nineteen years of service with a stellar performance review history. I had met this person briefly and he seemed like a good guy but the nature of the job was technical and a bit out of my scope so I leaned heavily on the impressions of others.

When I mentioned this candidate to the CEO of the parent company, he said, “Oh, you don’t want him. He’s a mail-it-in kinda’ guy. Just does the bare minimum and checks out.”  When I spoke with his immediate supervisor, I got a similar response.  So, when it came time for me to formally interview this person, I told him what I’d heard (protecting the sources). He was devastated. In all the time on the job he thought he was doing a fine—if not exemplary—job. Oblique speak at its worse. From what I could tell, he was a fine person with above average intelligence. With the right coaching and with honest feedback he may have moved into a high middle management position. Instead, within a couple years, when the economy tanked—and layoffs were inevitable—he was gone.

Two things were happening here. One, my guess is that he, at some level, knew he wasn’t performing at his best but put the gear in cruise figuring all was good with the brass.  The other thing was a culture of “nice guy” where nobody wanted to criticize the work of someone who, while maybe not destined for the C Suite, was “good enough.” He was accepted as a person but his work was not respected and he was on shaky ground for years; unfortunately, nobody told him. It was a case of pure conflict avoidance. The result hurt both the company—he was capable of so much more—and the individual who never got the needed kick in the butt needed to move himself out of cruise and into passing gear.

I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends…

In another case with a happier ending, let me tell you this story. In the field of wellness and health promotion I’ve encountered scores of really good people but only dozens of business-ready people. They—the nice but unconsciously incompetent group—need molding, mentoring, coaching and opportunities to both fail and succeed.  Most listen well, respond quickly, rarely make the same mistake twice and do just fine.  And, then there are those who, while talented, tend to wander off into deep water a little too often.

One such young man was having a challenge with authority and, it appeared, women supervisors in particular. His insubordination was reported up the chain of command and, after his boss conferred with her boss, the employee was place on a Performance Improvement Plan, a PIP. Having been schooled on the fine points of Secure-Accept-Respect management (SAR), it was explained to the employee that he was respected for his field knowledge and for his overall contribution to the team but that his attitude and failure to carry out instructions from his supervisor was unacceptable.  Furthermore, it was made perfectly clear that failure to rectify the situation would result in probation and, potentially, dismissal.  MOST important the PIP team, which included him, designed SMART goals that, if met, would put him back on track.

The review process uncovered cultural factors on both sides that helped explain—but not justify—his behavior. The process also revealed the extent of his supervisor’s frustration. To complicate matters, the supervisor, a warm, compassionate, quintessential health promotion professional, ranked very high on the OBLIQUE-SPEAK scale. Her instructions were riddled with ambiguity and qualifiers.  For example, instead of saying, “Be at Sharp Mechanics on Tuesday no later than 10:00 sharp to begin screenings. And, make sure to complete no less than 20 before heading back to the office at noon.” She was more apt to say, “If you would, please, try your best to start the screenings around 10:00, do the best that you can and I’ll see you when you return to the office. My guess is that it shouldn’t take you more than a couple hours to complete 20 screenings.” When he got back to the office at 12:30 after completing 15 screenings beginning at 10:30 she was furious and he was confused. She thought she was very clear with her instructions and he thought he was following her instructions to the letter.

In this case the issue was resolved and the employee went on to become a truly exemplary member of the corporate team.  Why?  Because of 5 critical steps:

  1. The issue was reported early
  2. The employee received a SAR review
  3. A collective effort determined the source of the problem
  4. A PIP was generated and agreed upon by all parties
  5. Both supervisor and employee received training on non-verbal communication and conflict management.

In the first case, the employee was blind-sided and everyone lost.  In the second case, because of a SAR culture, everyone won.  You choose…

2.    Practice No-Oblique Speak

When I was a young airman going through basic training at Lackland AFB in Texas we did a lot of marching and precision drilling.  I got the “Forward March” part  just fine and I nailed the “About Face” command.  However, I never heard of “Right Oblique” and “Left Oblique” commands. I quickly—and painfully—learned that it meant turn at a 45-degree angle; not right, not left, not forwards or backwards.

Oblique angles might work okay for a drill sergeant or an engineer but not so much when it comes to communication. As the subtitle to this article states, “crystal clear communication is critical” and that means, “Straight Talk.”

Once-upon-a-time, I had a senior staff colleague who was very passionate and opinionated when she spouted and fumed in the hallway but was solid as Jell-O when speaking inside the boardroom.

What was once…

“I absolutely oppose the direction we’re taking. It’s ill conceived, highly risky, over-funded and it distracts from our corporate mission. I don’t care if it is the CEO’s pet project, it will never work!”

Five steps later, inside the oak paneled conference room, her positioned morphed into…

“Well, this is clearly one of the best strategic initiatives conceived, to date.  Kudos to you and the development team, sir.  Excellent job!  I wonder, however, if, maybe, perhaps, you would entertain the possibility of holding off on the launch until a later date.  Our plate is pretty full right now and funds are getting tight. Of course, if it’s imperative that we meet the deadline you’ve proposed I’m sure we can move some of the other projects and concentrate on this one.  I just offer postponement as a suggestion, for your consideration.  You know of course, that my team and I will do whatever you feel is needed and we will make it work.”        

True story—with a little paraphrasing—but close enough to the real thing. The result of this inhibited culture of oblique-speak? The launch date was met but the initiative was was flawed at best with technical glitches , cumbersome administration, and considerable confusion. On top of that, it pulled key people off of mission-critical jobs, proved to be way more expense to launch and administer than originally planned, and it never recovered.  It didn’t work.

Now, of course, had the executive taken her hallway words and attitude into the boardroom she would have risked losing her job. No-Oblique-Speak isn’t code for hari kari. It’s possible to get your message across clearly without blowing everybody—including yourself—to smithereens.

She could have presented her views this way…

“With all due respect, sir, I encourage you to reconsider the launch, as well as the initiative, itself. It is my opinion, confirmed by my staff and supported by data, that, while the idea shows great promise, the current deadline isn’t realistic. The financial models are inconclusive and the IT staff needs more time to test various scenarios.  Instead of January, we recommend a June 1st launch with a May 15th Go/No-Go cutoff.”    

The CEO would not have been pleased but the Vice President (with fiduciary responsibilities) would have made her point clearly, and, perhaps, saved the project and/or a ton of money for the company.

3.    Behind Every Question There is A Concern

We all know the story of the little boy who asks his parents, “Where do I come from?”  The parents take a big breath and launch into a poorly rehearsed and supremely awkward rendition of the birds and the bees.  The little boy looks at them in confusion, shakes his head and says, “No, I mean, where did I come from?  Bobby’s from Buffalo…where am I from?”

Before launching off into a long discourse, remember that behind every question there is a concern.  Make sure you identify and understand the concern before you answer the question.  Remember, words are just a part of the communication mix.  Inflection, intonation and body language complete the message.

4.    Hyperbole Never Helps

I once had a member of my senior staff who was the Mistress of Hyperbole.

  • “Yes, yes, yes, I agree with that 100%! Only, do you think maybe we could modify it this way instead?”
  • “Fred is an outstanding employee. No doubt about it, he’s great. If only he wasn’t so pig-headed and lazy he could really make a contribution.”
  • “Totally! Yes, you are absolutely right.  My feelings, exactly. However…”

You get the point.  Extreme communication is a waste of time and brings a person’s credibility into question. It’s also very annoying. Listen for it in yourself and others and work to change the habit. Hyperbole is absolutely, positively, the worst possible thing a person can do! The world would be a perfect if ONLY people would stop exaggerating!  😉

5.     Don’t Confuse Connectivity with Communication (or intimacy)

Stop for a second and consider the possibility that the more touch-points we have…the less in-touch we’ve become.

The other day, I heard a TV reporter ask a 20-something woman how often she talked on the phone. Her response was, “Almost never.”  She, like most of those under forty, prefers texting to actual phone calling. Her response as to why she texts:  “I find that texting allows me to avoid the awkwardness that comes with actual interaction.”

No, seriously, that’s what she said. As for the reporter, not an eyebrow raised or a follow-up question asked.

 “…allows me to avoid the awkwardness that comes with actual interaction.”

Is it just my white hair that finds this alarming or are there others of you out there that are just a little creeped-out by her answer?

Yes, I understand the value of texting and instant messaging and I realize that the sheer numbers of contacts and connections has increased significantly. This part is all good. The creepy part is that…knowingly or not…I think she nailed it.  Have we exchanged intimacy and actual interaction for expediency and ease?

As for the full spectrum world of technology, it’s been said that computers like IBM’s “Watson” will never totally replace humans because they cannot convey the subtly and nuance often used to deliver the true meaning behind our messages. All of us have dozens of shades of smiles, frowns, voice inflections, intonations, body postures, eye shifts, lifts and squints that add color, texture and clarity to our interactions.

Wait, before anyone calls me old—”chronologically superior”—or out of touch (that would be ironic), let me again praise technology and its value in wellness, health promotion and daily living, in general. I love it for peer support, reminders, data uploads, medical monitoring, rallying action, spreading information, quick hellos, and growing social networks. It truly is remarkable and we’ve just scratched the surface!  Hot damn, hallelujah and bring it on.  My kids have the best hand-me-downs you can imagine. At this very moment my daughter is anxiously waiting for me to pick up my new iPad2 so she can have my “old” iPad1.

But please, please, please, along with high tech, keep fostering and building high touch. A few months ago, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the computer kick butt on Jeopardy but it’s hard to imagine “Dinner with Watson” coming to a theater near you. Also, all the emoticons in world can’t replace a hug, a knowing look or an actual smiley face from a real little kid. I don’t find interactions with them awkward, at all.

6.     Challenging and Constructive Conflict is Good.

This point will be covered in detail in Part III:

 Coming Up…

Part II:      Human Interaction:  The Order of Preference

Part III:     Building and Maintaining Relationships:  A Formula

Part IV:    Summary (So What?)

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