Playing in a Low Key

17 01 2011

Are you low key? Do you communicate in an indirect manner? Are people left wondering sometimes what you were really getting at?

Of course, the problem is that you may not even know. One of the hallmarks of being low key is that you will often feel that you have essentially done everthing possible short of slapping the other person and nailing a memo to their forehead; while they will be thinking, “okay, that’s an interesting thought you are hinting at there – I will give it some consideration when I have time.” In the end the penny will drop for you when you notice that noone ever seems to realise when they have been told off, or that you were laying down the law, not inviting a discussion. (I have a close friend who used to have to tell people they were being “let go” and they would come out of the meeting thinking they had just received a good performance review! His partner would then have to fire them all over again…)

There are at least two key components to being genuinely low key. One is that you are very aware of the need to protect other people’s dignity; the other is a great awareness of potential ambiguity and therefore of the need to give consideration to every angle of a story before taking action. A third element is often being highly subjective, as opposed to objective. You will notice that none of these things are negative in themselves; what we are dealing with in this article is simply how to counteract the potentially negative impact of this combination on situations that demand clear real-time communication, especially those involving “difficult” content.

So – some thoughts for the low-key among us (and that may be you!)

  1. Never use email to deal with an issue. (This is a fundamental law of the universe). Low-key people get “braver” when using email, and tend to resort to email when a fair amount of frustration has already built up. They then have to deal with the consequences face-to-face (or in more emails, which can be even worse). Email is for neutral information or good news – nothing else.
  2. Never use blanket communication to address a personal issue. If Fred is consistently late into the office (if you are still running that kind of weird, jacket-on-the-chair, outcome-blind environment – read Drive or google ROWE) then address the issue in person or by phone with Fred; don’t send out a memo or group email emphasising the importance of being on time. Everyone knows who it is aimed at and thinks you are weak or ineffectual for failing to talk directly to the person concerned.
  3. Get objective help in monitoring and increasing your directness. When someone asks you, “did you talk to so and so about such and such”, don’t just say “yes”. Give them a summary of the conversation; they may well be able to reflect back to you that the recipient may not have got the message based on what you have just recounted. Even better, for important communication get someone else to sit in on the session with you.
  4. Get the person you are communicating with to summarise for you what you have said (i.e. what they have heard). Spotting the gap will give you the opportunity to home in on the core of your message to them.
  5. In situations where you suddenly see a problem with someone’s behaviour, you may be tempted either to make some immediate comment (which may be both sharply pointed and obliquely directed – the worst of all worlds) or to just leave it altogether, hoping it will sort itself out (vain hope 99.99% of the time). Instead count ten, turn away, turn back and say “actually Jane, can we have a quick chat (after this meeting / after lunch / tomorrow)”. That wins you some time to think about how you want to tackle things, flags to them that there is an issue, and doesn’t leave you with a situation you will regret afterwards (either because you spoke or because you didn’t!)
  6. Above all, make sure you can write down on the back of an envelope, in objective and non-emotive terms, the actual issue that needs to be addressed – including the action you want the other person to take. No, it isn’t obvious to them just because it is to you! If the worst comes to the worst, give them the back of the envelope to read!

If any of this has hurt your feelings – please call me or wait till we next meet 🙂

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