Which room are you in?

Which room are you in?

Which room are you in?

An analogy to bring home the importance of place and time in your communication at work.

Jonathan Yudelowitz 

I’ve just seen a billboard advert claiming something along the lines of, “Talk to everyone, everywhere, now.” Well, no. This blog argues the case for corporate communication closer to the other end of the spectrum.

Talking to everyone, everywhere, now, is like finding yourself in a hall that has been converted to accommodate hundreds of refugees. With no privacy and no boundaries, you cannot help but communicate everything, to everyone, every moment of the day. It is a living hell.

That is pretty much what corporate communication has become. We have lost our sense of what to say, to whom, and when. How much is enough? And how much is not enough?

Unfortunately, we have lost our sense of place and time to help moderate and focus what we say.

How did we get here?

In its day, letter writing unfolded with a pace that demanded that you think – and often re-think – what you were committing to paper before you committed it to the post. Even dictating a memo involved another person who, either deliberately or unobtrusively, acted as a judge to help you arrange your thoughts – and temper them if necessary.

Email is a big culprit for the current chaos. It has taken communication away from real-life meetings and phone conversations. It has done away with valuable person-to-person interactions like the quick sit-down at someone’s desk or even the chat in the corridor. In these small moments there was instant feedback – including non-verbal cues – as to whether what you were saying was appropriate, whether you had made your point, and whether you were being heard. You could adjust what you were saying – and you were likely to say it with respect for the person listening to you.

And there was not today’s overload. You would not dream of having 300 of those little meetings a day – but you do get 300 emails a day.

Things have become worse with the rise of social media – they are the cacophony from the hall of refugees. Today, any number of people can text any collection of 280 Twitter characters – with no consideration of whether they would actually say what they have just said if they were talking to someone on the street corner or in the company canteen.

Lockdowns are not helping either. Isolation means that we now write things in a vacuum, with none of our colleagues around. Then we also send our messages into a vacuum – into a cloud, a virtual world. Where will the six people you are ‘communicating’ with be when they receive your message? What frame of mind will they be in? What time of day will it be? Will they even bother to read what you have to say? You have no way of knowing.

Where should business go from here?

As a way forward, I would like to suggest two steps.

Firstly, take a step back. Regain awareness. Assess whether your corporate communication has, indeed, become pretty much the cacophony you would hear in a hall of refugees.

Secondly, your people should be reminded that they are not emailing or having meetings or whatever. They are having conversations – and those conversations should be guided by a sense of time and place.

As an analogy, think of your family home.

In your home, different places mean different conversations. What you chat about in passing with your son in the kitchen will be different to what you talk about as a family at the supper table. What you delve into, one-on-one with your partner, in the sanctity of your bedroom, you will not bring up at the start of the day when everyone is getting their act together.

The subtle art of enough.

In your home, because you have been doing it forever, the art of conversation is second nature. How you handle yourself is instinctual. It’s obvious what and what not to do. At breakfast, not saying anything at all may well be the best strategy. At supper, a meaningful conversation depends on saying – not too little, not too much and certainly not everything – but enough. And late at night, saying the one thing that gets your partner’s attention may be crucial.

What you say and to whom you say it is bounded – and enriched – by a natural sense of time and place.

Time, place and enough in business.

Awareness of the importance of time and space in business is atrophying. The matter is not getting the attention it deserves.

Should business be about complete transparency? Should everything be shared with everyone, all the time, as the advert promises? Or should your priorities be more focused? What constitutes that invaluable quality – enough? How much is enough in the boardroom? How much is enough to get a decision-maker’s attention?

When something controversial comes up, you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Equally, widespread panic is not going to help either. How important is the matter at hand? Who needs to know? When? What tone of voice will be appropriate? What language will be effective?

Almost all conflict – all unmanageable controversy – is linked to time and place – and to people’s ability to “carry” what comes up in one place to another, completely different place. How do they carry something important that has come up in one space to another that has nothing to do with the first? How do they do so appropriately?

Again, the subtle quality of enough is crucial. Too much privacy may get people to speculate and create unnecessary concern. On the other hand, sharing too much can leave those same people feeling over-exposed or overwhelmed. How do you prepare your colleagues for a significant change in your life that will affect them?

Where do you draw the line? Go back to the analogy. Which room of the house are you in? Become aware of context, decide on your stance and then choose your words accordingly.

And when you are back home?

Again, saying enough but not too much is so important. How much time and space do you give yourself to recover from a bad day? How much of your day do you share? How much would they like to know? When something bigger is playing out, for instance a corporate restructuring, how do you garner your family’s all-important support for weeks on end – but without burdening them unnecessarily?

The power of perspective.

Sometimes when I am facilitating and lose attention or become overwhelmed, a bathroom break works surprisingly well. When I step away from the rough and tumble of the meeting room for a few minutes and stare at a blank wall, it’s amazing what happens. Just moving away, being still and allowing my thoughts to order themselves, I regain perspective.

By stepping out of the room, I get to see what needs to happen in the room. I become clear about what to do next. From the outside, I can see clearly what will be appropriate for the conversation I am guiding and facilitating.

Managing this perspective – this sense of the room – is an important part of running a business. It’s key to you being effective, impactful and powerful.

Technical details, personal values, rules, traditions… all of them matter. But how do you pull everything together, in the moment, and carry things forward so that progress is made?

The art of handling yourself.

If you say too much, will you control things? If you withhold everything, will you? If you are loud enough, will you? No, of course not. Effectiveness lies in the art of handling yourself. Knowing where you are. Knowing the context. Knowing how much to say. Knowing what belongs and what doesn’t.

As critical as awareness is, language and behaviour are more important. They are all that we really have control over.

People say that the art of rhetoric is just about the power and use of words. But it, too, is about time and place. It’s about knowing who you are talking to and what matters to them.

Tomorrow, you will have many conversations. Each time, become aware of which room of the house you should be in. Should you be having a chat in the kitchen or a lengthy conversation around the supper table? To make progress, first make the right choices.