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The "improving communication" saga. Episode 2: Dealing with the icebergs

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Have you ever felt like a dialogue with one of your team members (let’s call him Ron) is not going well, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong? The person is perfectly polite and professional, yet either things are not getting done or there is a slight tension or annoyance. You get the feeling there is something you should know, but don’t.

Or you leave the conversation thinking things went great, just to hit a wall a couple of days later because the Ron did not follow up, or did something you had not agreed on.  

To explain what happens in these sort of situations, I like to think about icebergs. The messages you and Ron are exchanging are the visible part of the iceberg, the parts above the water. The visible part is so clear, that you may easily think what you see is all there is.

But every message has a huge, invisible part - like the part of the iceberg that is underwater. To read the message correctly, it really helps to be able to see the hidden part of the iceberg (otherwise things can go the way of Titanic!).

The hidden part of the iceberg can include the person’s agenda, the concerns that the other person is not expressing, the person’s own context and understanding of the world (his or her perceptual filters, as they are called).

For example, Andrea asks you to provide a document saying, "It isn't urgent." Not urgent for you might mean it can be left until next month while not urgent for her might mean she can wait until tomorrow. The meaning of urgent in her perception is the hidden part of the iceberg.

I had a recent case of hitting an iceberg. When working with a new colleague, I was asking her for several things, and these were not getting done.

Practice sharing your own “hidden iceberg”

Practice sharing your own icebergs in your communications. Before your important meeting with Ron, make a list of all the assumptions, context, and understanding about the key issues that you have. Try to put yourself in Ron’s shoes. What of all of this would necessary or helpful for him to know? Below are some questions to get you started:

  • What is your agenda? Are there other conflicting agendas?

  • Are you worried, angry or disappointed about this work?

  • Do you disagree with the assignment or the way the work is being handled, but you still need to do it or contribute?

  • Is this a serious matter to you? Or is it not high in your priorities?

  • What is the context from which you are working?  What is the context for this work inside of the organization?

  • Are you in a lot of pressure from a client or a boss? What does urgent mean to you?

There might be some things that you cannot share for a variety of reason, but try to be as transparent and share as much as possible. This can be really useful for the other person.

Obtain information about other people’s icebergs

Also, practice asking questions from your team members or boss to probe into their invisible icebergs. Make sure your questions are not loaded, nor make your colleague feel like he or she is at fault. Here are some easy questions to get you started:

  • Can you give me a bit of context on this?

  • What is at stake here?

  • Are there any important agendas I should know about?

  • Is there any other information that could help me do a better job out of this?

  • What is the best way in your view to handle this?

I had a recent case of hitting an iceberg. When working with a new colleague, I was asking her for several tasks, and these were not getting done. At first I thought it was a communication channel issue (which we’ll talk about in the next episode of this saga). It turned out it was an iceberg issue.

When I finally sat down with him for a deeper conversation, I asked if there were organizational or administrative issues that were blocking progress that I did not know about, and how could I help move things forward. I turns out my colleague was dealing with the conflicting agendas of people he responded to. Once I knew this, it was easier to work together to find a solution, and stop getting frustrated at my colleague for the delays.

What about you? Are you dealing with any communication issues that may relate to information that is not being shared (either by you or the other person)?

Do you have any good questions we can add to this lists to go fish for the hidden icebergs? Share in the comments or on Facebook!



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