The Problem of Double-Speak

I am not sure if there is another way of putting this out there, but for now I am using the language of “double-speak.” 

What I mean by this is the following:   two different forms or expression of double-speak that we likely all encounter.  And in both cases, what it means is that trust is undercut and communication is compromised. 

The first form of double speak is that situation where someone in the organization says one thing to one person and another thing to another.   Within the organization, perhaps, they will tell one party one thing and something quite different to another – such as a president of a college who says one thing to the board but another to the faculty.  And, of course, in both cases what the president is doing is saying what each entity wants to hear.   So, the president wants the board to affirm her work and so she says one thing.  But to the faculty, she is now best friends with the faculty almost against or over against the board.   Or the president who says one thing to one VP and another to another.  There is an inconsistency of message . . . but more, there is an actual double speak:  the one message is not only not consistent with the other but actually a different message.    

The second form is in a way more overt:  the double speak happens in the same conversation where someone says one thing and then over the course of the conversation says another and you are left not sure what message you were supposed to hear.  And here’s the thing:  what I am speaking about here is either someone who really does not know what they think and they are truly ambivalent and perhaps do not want to accept their own ambivalence or, worse and more insidious, they are intentionally creating an un-ease by their double speak so that the hearer does not know where she/he sits.   When it is intentional, it is a form of control, a way to keep the full and true facts to oneself.   To not let the other into the know.  And this is a problem if the other needs to know:  if the president needs to know the financial situation of the school or, if the president is inconsistent with messages to the board, now the board is not well informed and able to do what they need to do and make the kinds of informed decisions they need to make. 

How do we respond?   First, of course, we need to affirm the power and freedom that comes with clarity and simplicity of speech.   I am sure that this is part, at least, of what Jesus means when he says to his disciples:   “let your yes be yes and your no no” . . .and then these stunning words:  “anything more than this is evil” (Matt 5:37)   Whoa . . . a stunning condemnation of double speak.   We must learn to be true to our word and value simplicity of speech so that those with whom we work can trust what they are hearing us say.   We do come to recognize that double speak is profoundly unhelpful and counter-intuitive to fostering trust and good communication.

If we are not sure or ambivalent about something, just acknowledge it.   There is no shame in uncertainty in the fact of a difficult situation; you can acknowledge that you are perplexed by a situation or not sure what options are before you.   But if and as you speak you do so determined that what others hear you say reflects what you see and what you understand to be the case.  

And second, we call it out.   If we hear or have some sense of double speak in another – call it out.  We are not trying to shame anyone or create a crisis; but why not . . . why not just say “I hear you saying two things . . . can you clarify for me which it is?”  Why not actually say to someone:  “I thought we had agreed on the following but it seems that in the communication with [insert other . . . ] something else was heard”.  Yes, it is very awkward to call it out, but it must be called out.  We need to press for clarity and shared understanding; we cannot build an organization if we are not willing to identify double speak when we see it or hear it or suspect it.  Where it is most awkward, of course, is with the “boss”, the person to whom we report.   And they might well feel that you are challenging them or somehow impugning their character by raising even the possibility of double-speak.   And yet, it has to be done.  Put the blame on yourself:   say that perhaps you misheard or that you need to clarify or however you can do it – as nicely as possible, no doubt – but, it has to be done.  A working relationship is only possible when double-speak can be called out.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.