Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.
This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.
We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.
First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”
When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).