Who’s Talking Now?

In even the simplest organizational structure, each employee, whether his or her title is CEO, VP, Director, Manager, Dean, Associate or Assistant, has more than one identity.  This is first and foremost because each employee has an identity (let’s hope) other than “employee” outside of work. Within the boundaries of the org chart, each employee has the identities of their role; identity as a direct report; as a peer and perhaps as the manager of someone else. It can get more complicated when an individual serves on or leads more than one team or when the individual might be an owner of the company or a shareholder.  Subtler are the identities that come from emotional relationships–employees are friends, for example, or they have respect or loyalties to other people in the organization. Finally, an individual has multiple internal identities. Depending on the situation, the same person can have the identity of fearless, scared, pushy, indecisive or decisive, integrity to name only a few.

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With so many possible identities, the adage asking “I wonder who will show up today?” might be aptly applied.  Importantly, in a group, the question can be and is being asked.  “I wonder who is talking?”  The listener hears the words you are saying, but the words you are saying are being filtered and translated through the context of your perceived identity (VP, peer, friend, timid). The listener is assuming your identity to figure out the subtleties of your words, the hidden meaning, how much weight to put into them, how much to trust you. The listener is assuming they know and understand your point of view. If the listener is wrong in their assumption of “who is talking”, you can say the same words but they are heard totally wrong!

In preparation for an important message, we often consider who is our audience, but do we consider who we are to the audience? Even in impromptu moments or one-on-one conversations the questions of the listener are, “What’s your angle?” “What’s in it for you?” “Why should he care?” “How seriously should I take this message?” “What should be my response?”.  All of the answers depend upon who is talking.

To be most effective in our communication, we need to also share our identity. This requires us to know our identity. And it requires us to communicate that identity to the listener.

Take for example a simple statement like: “I think the decision to stop the project is wrong.” Right away the listener starts to interpret why this speaker thinks the decision is wrong. Depending upon the assumed identity (VP, manager, team peer, a person with who wants to keep their job, a friend, fearless), the motivation behind those words, the interpretation of what they really mean is quite different. From the listeners’ point of view, the VP might be making this statement from a future revenue point of view; the team peer may want to prove something to their boss; the person may have kids going to college and is really afraid of losing their job; the friend is afraid of losing important relationships, or as an individual you may think the decision goes against your personal values. Even though the same words are spoken by the same person, these words take on totally different meaning depending on who the listener perceives is talking.

The solution may be to explain further and with more words the reason why you believe the decision is wrong.  However, the listener will continue to use the same identity filter through which to hear your words.  That filter can be so strong that the listener may go so far as to not even believe you, and find you to be disingenuous—“Even though you are giving reason like a friend, I know you are really thinking in your VP role.”

A solution goes to a common theme we’ve written about before—start with why rather than what.  The why (reason) for your what (statement) depends on the identity you are taking before making your statement.  Do you know who is actually going to talk before you make a statement? We need to know our identity before we start talking, and the listener needs to know our identity before we start talking. In this way, at least, we are not giving them the opportunity to filter our words before we try to explain our reasons (and indirectly our identity), and it therefore saves us from having to unlearn their incorrect assumption (which is not easy).

Making it more complicated, we may find on introspection that we are internally conflicted because we do carry more than one identity and those identities might have differing viewpoints. What would it be like to share both of those viewpoints with the listener? “On one hand as the VP, I feel this way.  On the other hand as your friend, I feel this way”.

The speaker’s words only carry half of the meaning. The listener’s response to those words comprises the other half of the meaning. In order to increase the likelihood that the words spoken and the words heard have similar meaning, its important to give as much clarity as possible to those words. Even though it is physically the same person speaking the source of those words needs to be clear for maximum effectiveness. To honestly share your identity is the greatest form of transparency.

Jonathan Shaver