Explicit and Implicit Communication

I write an es­say ev­ery Thurs­day. Every so of­ten, one seems to re­ally res­onate with peo­ple.

The piece I just wrote on the na­ture of ex­plicit and im­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion both got an en­thu­si­as­tic reader re­sponse and seems di­rectly rele­vant to a num­ber of the pro­jects and ex­plo­ra­tions peo­ple are do­ing here, so I’m bring­ing it over here.

Two points worth men­tion­ing —

1. I take, I think, a rel­a­tively fair stance on the trade­offs and benefits be­tween im­plicit and ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But some peo­ple are heav­ily in­vested in ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tions mod­els, al­most to the iden­tity level, and might not like what they read. I just ask you to bring an open mind — I think the ex­am­ples of im­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion here are all clear and con­vinc­ing cases where ex­plicit can un­der­perform.

2. It was writ­ten for a more gen­eral au­di­ence, hence a differ­ent mix of anec­dote, differ­ent lev­els of rigor in defi­ni­tion, etc. I made some stylis­tic choices where I err on the side of per­sua­sive writ­ing, style, and po­et­ics over more tech­ni­cal and higher-pre­ci­sion defi­ni­tions and episte­mol­ogy. Had I writ­ten this for LW to start, all the lan­guage and some of the rea­son­ing chains would be shifted about 20 de­grees or so — but nev­er­the­less, I think the gen­eral points here are re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant. Don’t let style or pedantry get in the way of un­der­stand­ing for you here if you can help it.

I de­cided to post this once I got a lot of reader replies like this —

“Think this is one of the high­est qual­ity and most in­sight­ful pieces you’ve writ­ten—huge amount of origi­nal and ac­tion­able con­tent that helps build some struc­ture for a vague set of in­tu­itions I’ve had for a while.”

Ok, here we go —

Unity: Communication

SABOTAGE

“A sec­ond type of sim­ple sab­o­tage re­quires no de­struc­tive tools what­so­ever and pro­duces phys­i­cal dam­age, if any, by highly in­di­rect means. It is based on uni­ver­sal op­por­tu­ni­ties to make faulty de­ci­sions, to adopt a non­co­op­er­a­tive at­ti­tude, and to in­duce oth­ers to fol­low suit. Mak­ing a faulty de­ci­sion may be sim­ply a mat­ter of plac­ing tools in one spot in­stead of an­other. A non-co­op­er­a­tive at­ti­tude may in­volve noth­ing more than cre­at­ing an un­pleas­ant situ­a­tion among one’s fel­low work­ers, en­gag­ing in bick­er­ings, or dis­play­ing surli­ness and stu­pidity. […]

Acts of sim­ple sab­o­tage are oc­cur­ring through­out Europe. An effort should be made to add to their effi­ciency, lessen their de­tectabil­ity, and in­crease their num­ber. Acts of sim­ple sab­o­tage, mul­ti­plied by thou­sands of cit­i­zen-sabo­teurs, can be an effec­tive weapon against the en­emy. Slash­ing tires, drain­ing fuel tanks, start­ing fires, start­ing ar­gu­ments, act­ing stupidly, short-cir­cuit­ing elec­tric sys­tems, abrad­ing ma­chine parts will waste ma­te­ri­als, man­power, and time. Oc­cur­ring on a wide scale, sim­ple sab­o­tage will be a con­stant and tan­gible drag on the war effort of the en­emy.”

Be­fore the Nor­mandy In­va­sion in June 1944, Nazi Ger­many had oc­cu­pied most of Western Europe. Many civili­ans of oc­cu­pied coun­tries were forced to par­ti­ci­pate in build­ing the ar­ma­ments and sup­plies for the Nazi war ma­chine.

Around this time, some mem­bers of the Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity re­al­ized that many of the cit­i­zens of oc­cu­pied coun­tries dis­liked the Nazis, but lacked an un­der­stand­ing of how to dis­rupt their af­fairs with­out risk­ing their lives.

Thus, in Jan­uary 1944, the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices — the pre­cur­sor of the CIA — put out the “Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­ual.”

Many of the sug­ges­tions are straight­for­ward and as you’d ex­pect — rang­ing from mun­dane things like failing to do reg­u­lar main­te­nance on a ma­chine or work­ing slowly, to quickly-runnable dis­rup­tive pro­ce­dures like slash­ing the tires on an au­to­mo­bile or re­mov­ing the filter from an in­dus­trial ma­chine.

But that’s not the most in­ter­est­ing part of the doc­u­ment — the in­ter­est­ing part is where it out­lines how to slow down, dis­rupt, and par­a­lyze in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions of an or­ga­ni­za­tion —

“(11) Gen­eral In­terfer­ence with Or­ga­ni­za­tions and Production

(a) Or­ga­ni­za­tions and Con­fer­ences

(1) In­sist on do­ing ev­ery­thing through “chan­nels.” Never per­mit short-cuts to be taken in or­der to ex­pe­d­ite de­ci­sions.

(2) Make “speeches.” Talk as fre­quently as pos­si­ble and at great length. Illus­trate your “points” by long anec­dotes and ac­counts of per­sonal ex­pe­riences. Never hes­i­tate to make a few ap­pro­pri­ate “pa­tri­otic” com­ments.

(3) When pos­si­ble, re­fer all mat­ters to com­mit­tees, for “fur­ther study and con­sid­er­a­tion.” At­tempt to make the com­mit­tees as large as pos­si­ble — never less than five.

(4) Bring up ir­rele­vant is­sues as fre­quently as pos­si­ble.

(5) Hag­gle over pre­cise word­ings of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, min­utes, re­s­olu­tions.

(6) Refer back to mat­ters de­cided upon at the last meet­ing and at­tempt to re-open the ques­tion of the ad­vis­abil­ity of that de­ci­sion.

(7) Ad­vo­cate “cau­tion.” Be “rea­son­able” and urge your fel­low-con­ferees to be “rea­son­able” and avoid haste which might re­sult in em­bar­rass­ments or difficul­ties later on.

(8) Be wor­ried about the pro­pri­ety of any de­ci­sion — raise the ques­tion of whether such ac­tion as is con­tem­plated lies within the ju­ris­dic­tion of the group or whether it might con­flict with the policy of some higher ech­e­lon.”

***

TSR’S SERIES ON UNITY, ISSUE #7: COMMUNICATION

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is crit­i­cal for es­tab­lish­ing high-unity teams — but very few top­ics have so much ex­plic­itly bad in­for­ma­tion pub­li­cly available as how to com­mu­ni­cate.

Cer­tainly, we’d all benefit from some in-depth study, re­flec­tion, and prac­tice on how to be bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tors — but there’s a rea­son we opened this piece with an ex­cerpt from a 1944 guide to sab­o­tage.

To put it bluntly — many mod­ern at­tempts at bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­ad­ver­tently cre­ate con­di­tions that ac­tu­ally sab­o­tage an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s effec­tive­ness and unity.

Again, do re­mem­ber that the fol­low­ing re­mark was from a guide to sab­o­tage

“Make “speeches.” Talk as fre­quently as pos­si­ble and at great length. Illus­trate your “points” by long anec­dotes and ac­counts of per­sonal ex­pe­riences.”

This is the peril of com­mu­ni­ca­tions — we want to get all the rele­vant de­tails on the table, we want to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tively, but there’s few places where it’s more pos­si­ble to get bogged-down as in­effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Estab­lish­ing good com­mu­ni­ca­tions is es­sen­tial — just as es­sen­tial is re­duc­ing the type of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that ex­plic­itly hurts the mis­sion and team. This is the nee­dle we’ll at­tempt to thread in this is­sue.

***

GUIDANCE: THREE SIMULTANEOUS CONVERSATIONS

Let’s dive right into guidance.

The book Difficult Con­ver­sa­tions by the Har­vard Ne­go­ti­a­tion Pro­ject has an ex­cel­lent and highly pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tional frame­work to learn.

The whole book is worth read­ing, but the core les­son is that in any given con­ver­sa­tion with fric­tion in it, there’s ac­tu­ally three con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing —

“In study­ing hun­dreds of con­ver­sa­tions of ev­ery kind we have dis­cov­ered that there is an un­der­ly­ing struc­ture to what’s go­ing on, and un­der­stand­ing this struc­ture, in it­self, is a pow­er­ful first step in im­prov­ing how we deal with these con­ver­sa­tions. It turns out that no mat­ter what the sub­ject, our thoughts and feel­ings fall into the same three cat­e­gories, or “con­ver­sa­tions.” And in each of these con­ver­sa­tions we make pre­dictable er­rors that dis­tort our thoughts and feel­ings’ and get us into trou­ble.

[…]

1. The “What Hap­pened?” Con­ver­sa­tion. Most difficult con­ver­sa­tions in­volve dis­agree­ment about what has hap­pened or what should hap­pen. Who said what and who did what? Who’s right, who meant what, and who’s to blame? […]

2. The Feel­ings Con­ver­sa­tion. Every difficult con­ver­sa­tion also asks and an­swers ques­tions about feel­ings. Are my feel­ings valid? Ap­pro­pri­ate? Should I ac­knowl­edge or deny them, put them on the table or check them at the door? What do I do about the other per­son’s feel­ings? […]

3. The Iden­tity Con­ver­sa­tion. This is the con­ver­sa­tion we each have with our­selves about what this situ­a­tion means to us. We con­duct an in­ter­nal de­bate over whether this means we are com­pe­tent or in­com­pe­tent, a good per­son or bad, wor­thy of love or un­lov­able. What im­pact might it have on our self-image and self-es­teem, our fu­ture and our well-be­ing? Our an­swers to these ques­tions de­ter­mine in large whether we feel “bal­anced” dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, or whether we feel off-cen­ter and anx­ious.””

A sum­mary here wouldn’t do jus­tice to the book — it goes through 350 pages ex­plor­ing the differ­ent lev­els con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen on, looks at dozens of real-world ex­am­ples of how this plays out in the work­place, and how con­flict can hap­pen across lev­els.

But once learned, it’s a frame­work that tremen­dously helps in nav­i­gat­ing con­ver­sa­tions.

For in­stance, if a man­ager at a com­pany felt like an em­ployee was writ­ing poor-qual­ity memos and recom­mended the em­ployee take a course on busi­ness writ­ing, it might look like this —

1. What Hap­pened: the man­ager as­sessed the em­ployee’s writ­ing was poor and recom­mended a writ­ing course. The em­ployee might or might not agree their writ­ing was poor.

2. Feel­ings: the man­ager might be a mix of frus­trated but also ex­cited to see the em­ployee’s de­vel­op­ment. The em­ployee might feel, si­mul­ta­neously, like their man­ager doesn’t care about them and feels in­sulted by it.

3. Iden­tity: the man­ager might not even think about this level, as­sess­ing the writ­ing qual­ity as just a pro­fes­sional skill to im­prove and not a big deal. The em­ployee might see it as a dis­play they’re not com­pe­tent or stupid.

You can wind up, then, hav­ing very in­effec­tive con­ver­sa­tions that look like this —

Man­ager: Hey, I think your writ­ing is hold­ing you back. I’d like you to take a pro­fes­sional writ­ing course.

Em­ployee (think­ing, “Does the man­ager think I’m stupid? Am I stupid?”): Uhh, ok, is my writ­ing that bad?

It might be a mis­take for the man­ager to just re­ply fac­tu­ally there: “Well, yeah, it is.” The ques­tion “Is my writ­ing that bad?” isn’t ac­tu­ally ask­ing about the writ­ing; it’s a (poorly phrased) at­tempt to clar­ify who they are and how they should feel about things.

A more effec­tive re­sponse might be,

Man­ager: You’ve got a bunch of ter­rific skills and you’re do­ing great here — it’s fan­tas­tic to have you on the team. I think you can level-up your writ­ing and it’ll help you. How do you feel about tak­ing the course?

That’s a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward ex­am­ple, but it can get quite nu­anced and sub­tle. Many times, if you point out some­thing that’s fac­tu­ally true and ask a per­son to change their be­hav­ior, they’ll get ag­gra­vated or defen­sive — again, a con­ver­sa­tion that’s hap­pen­ing on differ­ent lev­els. It’s very easy for Per­son A to think a con­ver­sa­tion is hap­pen­ing on a fac­tual cause-and-effect level, whereas Per­son B is en­gag­ing defen­sively on the ba­sis of feel­ings and iden­tity.

Read Difficult Con­ver­sa­tions soon if this isn’t in­tu­itive to you already, and read it sooner or later any­ways even if it is. It’s one of the best books on how to make ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion go bet­ter.

***

IMPLICIT COMMUNICATION

“I ar­rived at my sixth RV [ren­dezvous point] in the late af­ter­noon and called out my color and num­ber as soon as the sit­ter looked up at my ap­proach.

“Roger, Green Six. Go across the road to those points, take off your ruck­sack, and sit down.” He pointed to a clump of pines about thirty me­ters away.

I stood there un­cer­tainly for a sec­ond and asked, “Am I finished?”

He merely re­peated, “Go across the road to those points, take off your ruck­sack, and sit down.” He said it in a level, calm voice as if I had never caused him to re­peat his state­ment. No ex­as­per­a­tion, no snide­ness, no em­pha­sis, just the state­ment of in­struc­tions.

“Right,” I said, as I moved away. Just do as you’re told and don’t ask ques­tions un­less the in­struc­tions are un­clear.”

— Com­mand Sergeant Ma­jor Eric L. Haney, In­side Delta Force, 2002

“Bruce [Lee] had me up to three miles a day, re­ally at a good pace. We’d run the three miles in twenty-one or twenty-two min­utes. Just un­der eight min­utes a mile. So this morn­ing he said to me “We’re go­ing to go five.” I said, “Bruce, I can’t go five. I’m a hel­luva lot older than you are, and I can’t do five.” He said, “When we get to three, we’ll shift gears and it’s only two more and you’ll do it.” I said “Okay, hell, I’ll go for it.” So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four min­utes, and then I re­ally be­gin to give out. I’m tired, my heart’s pound­ing, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” –and we’re still run­ning-”if I run any more I’m li­able to have a heart at­tack and die.” He said, “Then die.”

John Little

I’m a be­liever in ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

I’ll say it again —

I’m a be­liever in ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion is mar­velous.

It’s benefi­cial.

It’s pro­duc­tive.

You should get skil­led at it.

I’m a be­liever in ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

But not en­tirely.

We ex­plored Haney’s ex­pe­rience join­ing the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force in Unity #4: Selec­tion Pro­ce­dures. It was a hellishly difficult ex­pe­rience — in­ten­tion­ally.

Now, this is where com­mu­ni­ca­tion gets hard. If we look at the three lev­els of con­ver­sa­tion de­scribed in Difficult Con­ver­sa­tions, here’s what’s go­ing on —

Delta Force se­lec­tion cadre (fac­tual in­struc­tion): I’ve reg­istered your time and num­ber. Go across the road, take your pack off, and sit down.

Haney (all three lev­els): Fac­tu­ally, is there more to do? How am I do­ing, by the way? Could you re­as­sure me, per­haps? Am I do­ing well?

Delta Force se­lec­tion cadre (in­ten­tion­ally ig­nor­ing feel­ings and iden­tity): Go across the road, take your pack off, and sit down.

Isn’t that cu­ri­ous?

Some­thing is go­ing on there.

And Delta Force be­came one of the high­est-unity teams in all of his­tory. They built an in­cred­ibly pro­fes­sional, re­silient, un­rea­son­ably effec­tive force. Surely they know what they’re do­ing.

I’m a be­liever in ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion — but not en­tirely.

How did John Lit­tle do on the rest of his run with Bruce Lee?

“… So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four min­utes, and then I re­ally be­gin to give out. I’m tired, my heart’s pound­ing, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” –and we’re still run­ning-”if I run any more I’m li­able to have a heart at­tack and die.” He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles. After­ward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it.”

A differ­ent case to be sure, but some­thing similar to Delta Force, no?

And the rest of the story —

“After­ward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to [Lee] about it. I said, you know, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Be­cause you might as well be dead. Se­ri­ously, if you always put limits on what you can do, phys­i­cal or any­thing else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your moral­ity, into your en­tire be­ing. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go be­yond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must con­stantly ex­ceed his level.””

I’m a be­liever in ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion — but not en­tirely.

***

CONTRA UTOPIA

As far as works on ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion go, Difficult Con­ver­sa­tions is ex­cep­tional. I think it’s the best on the topic. But y’know, I went through the en­tire book for the fourth time for this piece, and you know what’s not in there?

When ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

This is my gen­eral is­sue with high-ideal­ism, quasi-utopian frame­works of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and di­a­log.

I think there’s a lot of value in de­vel­op­ing ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing ex­plic­itly far more than most peo­ple do.

But, cu­ri­ously enough, when you look at the most effec­tive and high-unity teams, they don’t tend to run on so-called com­pas­sion­ate forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

In my origi­nal draft­ing of this piece, I was go­ing to look at a num­ber of the premises, trade­offs, and good and bad points of things like Non­vi­o­lent Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Holoc­racy, which both have some mar­velous ideas, are well-wor­thy of study, and offer a lot… but which have some gi­gan­tic holes in them.

But you know, both of them at­tract lev­els of al­most fa­natic de­vo­tion to them, and not hav­ing the time or in­cli­na­tion for en­gag­ing in a po­ten­tial holy war, I set that aside.

I would sim­ply sub­mit the fol­low­ing type of state­ment from NVC with­out com­men­tary —

“Felix, when I see socks un­der the coffee table I feel ir­ri­tated be­cause I am need­ing more or­der in the room that we share in com­mon. Would you be will­ing to put your socks in your room or in the wash­ing ma­chine?”

I’ve stud­ied both NVC and Holoc­racy to, I think, a fair de­gree of un­der­stand­ing. I found some gems in both of them; they’re worth re­view at some point if you’re in­ter­ested in the topic. I’d recom­mend start­ing with Difficult Con­ver­sa­tions which is prob­a­bly the most straight­for­ward and least ideal­is­tic guide to ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but I be­lieve that ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion alone isn’t the an­swer — and is of­ten coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

***

SECOND AND THIRD-ORDER COMPASSIONATE HARSHNESS

What do we make of Bruce Lee’s re­mark to his friend he’s run­ning with?

John: Bruce, if I run any more I’m li­able to have a heart at­tack and die.

Bruce: Then die.

On first glance, this is a rather harsh re­mark — Bruce doesn’t care about his friend’s feel­ings and he makes an in­ci­sive dis­mis­sive re­mark.

But the sec­ond or­der effect is that John finished the run.

The third or­der effect is that John learned about tran­scend­ing his limits and be­came a stronger hu­man.

What do we make of the Delta Force cadre mem­ber ig­nor­ing Sergeant Haney’s ques­tion about whether he was finished for the day?

The first-or­der effect was, again, dis­mis­sive­ness.

But the sec­ond-or­der and higher-or­der effects were en­courag­ing team mem­bers to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on the mo­ment at hand and next in­struc­tions, to not worry about the fu­ture and things out­side their im­me­di­ate con­trol, and which led even­tu­ally to more in­de­pen­dent-minded and effec­tive sol­diers.

This is where, I reckon, ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion falls down.

This is­sue of Unity is fully go­ing against a main­stream trend, and I’m fully aware of that — the Western world is mov­ing to­wards more ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion, all the time, and to­wards a con­stant val­i­da­tion of feel­ings.

Which if a given set of feel­ings are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to the mis­sion? To the in­di­vi­d­ual? To the team?

The main­stream view in 2018 is that this is an im­pos­si­bil­ity — that all feel­ings are rele­vant — or at least, that not ex­press­ing those feel­ings will have se­ri­ous detri­men­tal con­se­quences later.

This has not been my ex­pe­rience, and it doesn’t seem to be true when study­ing the his­tor­i­cal record. There are times when en­gag­ing with feel­ings and iden­tity are crit­i­cally im­por­tant to func­tion well, and there’s times when feel­ings and iden­tity are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive epiphe­nomenon that should be dis­missed.

In my ex­pe­rience, it’s very hard to know what feel­ings should be en­gaged with and which should not. Of­ten­times, ig­nor­ing a nag­ging ir­ra­tional feel­ing just makes it go away — and ig­nor­ing it enough times means it fades and dies off, leav­ing you a more ro­bust and strong in­di­vi­d­ual.

Other times, the feel­ings get louder. It’s a com­plex topic and of­ten hard to get right. And, as Haney men­tioned in In­side Delta Force, you have to be verycare­ful around “the fine line be­tween hard-ass and dumb-ass” — with ath­letic train­ing or mil­i­tary train­ing, peo­ple die if you cross that line in the wrong di­rec­tion. In more mun­dane ev­ery­day work af­fairs, it still has nega­tive con­se­quences that we should be wary of.

Nev­er­the­less, one of a leader’s jobs is to set the cul­ture of an or­ga­ni­za­tion — how rele­vant are our feel­ings? How rele­vant is pain? How im­por­tant is it to ad­dress if a team mem­ber feels in­ad­e­quate and in­se­cure?

The his­tor­i­cal record is very clear that the most elite or­ga­ni­za­tions do not con­stantly en­gage with feel­ings and per­sonal nar­ra­tives — great cul­tures nav­i­gate the mix of ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion to re­ally dive deep into the whole fabric of thought and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and im­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion and sub­textto set stan­dards and en­courage peo­ple to grow stronger.

Surely, Bruce Lee’s “Then die” is a harsh re­mark — but would it have been bet­ter for him to say to John, in the mid­dle of the home stretch of their run, “John, I un­der­stand and hear you that you’re ex­pe­rienc­ing pain and you’re con­cerned about your health, and yet I feel sad that our shared run might not com­plete if you stop now. Would you be will­ing to con­tinue run­ning?”

***

INFORMATION DENSITY, LACONICISM, ACTA NON VERBA

“When Xerxes wrote again, “Hand over your arms,” King Leonidas wrote in re­ply, “Come and take them.””

— Plutarch’s Mo­ralia, Say­ings of the Spar­tans, 1st Cen­tury AD

The word “La­conic” comes from the Spar­tans; their home­land was La­co­nia — it’s a re­mark in­cred­ibly po­tent in its brevity.

Alexan­der the Great’s father, Philip II of Mace­don, threat­ened the Spar­tans such —

“You are ad­vised to sub­mit with­out fur­ther de­lay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will de­stroy your farms, slay your peo­ple, and raze your city.”

The Spar­tan re­ply was one word —

“If.”

That sin­gle word — “If” — com­mu­ni­cates so much more than any long dec­la­ra­tions or state­ments or ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion ever could.

Bruce Lee’s “Then die” is cer­tainly la­conic — and this is some­thing that most ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion sadly lacks.

Ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion is ex­pen­sive. Its pro­po­nents — in fact, I’m one of its pro­po­nents — would ar­gue that it’s usu­ally worth it, and less ex­pen­sive than com­mu­ni­cat­ing in­effec­tively.

But the 1944 OSS sab­o­tage man­ual in­cluded a lot of recom­men­da­tions to en­gage in ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­ces­sively and pointlessly. Again — for sab­o­tage.

Some­times the best com­mu­ni­ca­tion isn’t words at all, but ac­tions — a demon­strated lack of car­ing about one’s own emo­tions and hard­ships gets picked up by the rest of the team. Many of our emo­tions are just early warn­ing sig­nals about un­com­fortable ac­tivi­ties, and we can tran­scend them over time and with prac­tice. Often a la­conic phrase is bet­ter than a long-winded piece of ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and of­ten demon­strated ac­tion is bet­ter than any word at all.

***

CONCLUSION

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is difficult — over time, one should be­come skil­led at ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It’s of­ten among the most crit­i­cal skills to keep a team perform­ing at the high­est lev­els, and very few of us do it au­to­mat­i­cally. Study­ing and prac­tic­ing a work like Difficult Con­ver­sa­tions goes a long way to­wards be­com­ing a bet­ter ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tor.

But ex­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion has its limits — it’s of­ten, coun­ter­in­tu­itively, more com­pas­sion­ate in the long term to be harsh, un­y­ield­ing, un­af­fected. This of course re­quires that you have good Selec­tion Pro­ce­dures and you se­lected team mem­bers with the right De­fault In­cli­na­tions and In­stincts — per­haps even a ma­jor­ity of peo­ple would not and could not han­dle this type of en­vi­ron­ment. (With that said, though, Chi­nese par­ents seem to do a lot of this — and their chil­dren seem to grow into be ad­mirable high-for­ti­tude adults at a very high rate.)

I’ll leave you with a last thought from Friedrich Niet­zsche that I be­lieve is true. Chew on it some as you think about what type of cul­ture you want to build —

“What? The fi­nal aim of sci­ence should be to give man as much plea­sure and as lit­tle dis­plea­sure as pos­si­ble? But what if plea­sure and dis­plea­sure are so in­ter­twined that who­ever wants as much as pos­si­ble of one must also have as much as pos­si­ble of the other — that who­ever wants to learn to ‘ju­bilate up to the heav­ens’ must also be pre­pared for ‘grief unto death’? And that may well be the way things are! […] Even to­day you still have the choice: ei­ther as lit­tle dis­plea­sure as pos­si­ble, in short, lack of pain — and so­cial­ists and poli­ti­ci­ans of all par­ties fun­da­men­tally have no right to promise any more than that — or as much dis­plea­sure as pos­si­ble as the price for the growth of a bounty of re­fined plea­sures and joys that hith­erto have sel­dom been tasted. Should you de­cide on the former, i.e. if you want to de­crease and diminish peo­ple’s sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to pain, you also have to de­crease and diminish their ca­pac­ity for joy. With sci­enceone can ac­tu­ally pro­mote ei­ther of these goals! So far it may still be bet­ter known for its power to de­prive man of his joys and make him colder, more statue-like, more stoic. But it might yet be found to be the great giver of pain! — And then its coun­terforce might at the same time be found: its im­mense ca­pac­ity for let­ting new galax­ies of joy flare up!”

— Niet­zsche, The Gay Science, 1882

Of course, do be care­ful not to cross that fine line from hard-ass to dumb-ass — as Haney put it. Lead­er­ship is hard. Unity is hard. Most peo­ple do not get it right and never re­ally ex­pe­rience the great­est heights of it. But it’s so beau­tiful and joyful to be­hold that I be­lieve it’s worth striv­ing for.

To leave the piece on an ad­mit­tedly com­pletely un­fair note —

“Felix, when I see socks un­der the coffee table I feel ir­ri­tated be­cause I am need­ing more or­der in the room that we share in com­mon. Would you be will­ing to put your socks in your room or in the wash­ing ma­chine?”

“On the morn­ing of the third and fi­nal day of the bat­tle, Leonidas, know­ing they were be­ing sur­rounded, ex­horted his men, “Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hell.””

Yours, truly,

Se­bas­tian Mar­shal­l
Edi­tor, TheS­trate­gicRe­view.net