Dirty Laundry


Published: 7 Jul 2018

The 'Pure Mechanics' of Communication

Superficial communication will only ever get you superficial results, superficial friends, superficial work relationships. To go deep and really have honest, valuable contributions and communication you sometimes need to reveal your ‘dirty laundry’.

From the get go with my work and classes there was a realisation that if people felt they were in a safe space, if others had experienced what they had been through, if they saw an opportunity to get resolution on something that had been bothering them for a while, then they would speak out.

This never became clearer than in 2015 when an activity called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was introduced into corporate sessions. The initial impressions (both body language and vocally) when it was explained that in groups they were going to brainstorm and record in pretty columns, or bubble charts what the good, bad, and ugly was about their workplace was priceless and informative.

The instructions are always the same:

Be honest

Be respectful

Be brave

This is your moment to say it, (whatever IT is) out loud. Bring that dirty laundry out into the open, so it can get sorted and cleaned up.

The next few minutes go in several ways:

Some groups set straight off in a frenzy and I hear statements like, “Well of course the air con not being fixed for a year needs to be in the ugly.” “We have great coffee, that’s good right?”

Invariably one person in the group (either the pushiest, or the most passive) gets stiffed for the creative recording of the findings.

What happens next is always the most interesting part as the observer.  The passive/aggressives make themselves known quite quickly and take this as their opportunity to write down in real words every gripe they ever had about the company. Some of which may or may not seem reasonable later.

The next phase is often backtracking. The assertive’s and those with the highest ethics and integrity in the teams will bring the negative nellies back to the good. “We always get an amazing Christmas party and bonus, don’t forget that.” “We have great toilet rolls.” (this one happens a lot!)

There is heated debate about whether certain topics are really ugly or should be downgraded to the bad column.

But always, ALWAYS communication is in there somewhere on every piece of paper.

People agree, disagree, and come back to a resigned-ness at some point, once they begin to see their true interpretation of where they work, how they work, and who they work with unfolding before them.

It may seem like a harsh start to a session, but what it reveals may save several hours more time really getting to the bottom of what the communication issues are that need work on. More importantly it made them transparent, gave them a voice.

Then over the next few hours or sessions we have a starting point of things that have shaped the culture (the good). The things that everyday frustrate the hell out of people (the bad) and the things that really need fixing if the best people are likely to stay (the ugly).

Sometimes, just finding others who feel like you can be enough. In 2017 over 1,000 women were asked the same question. What’s your biggest fear as a woman? Write it down!

Over 75% of the women wrote one word – failure! But, the incredible observation in different towns all over New Zealand was this – once the first woman said the word “failure” the next woman sighed and then said failure too. In one group almost two thirds of the room said failure and once the first woman said it a visible Mexican wave of relief traversed the room. There was a unification in that word and strength in numbers that the women didn’t feel alone. It was freeing.

It’s an everyday component of the work that sometimes (in order help to be given, people need to share what they are dealing with. Their revelations, secrets, and honesty come with a sacred trust – that in sharing they may get the answer they need, but they will have aired their dirty laundry in public. It’s brave, gutsy, and can be a gamble.

The vulnerability shown is often rewarded with affirming and supporting comments from others in the room. The others go away feeling vindicated if it resonated with them. Appreciative and grateful if it never happened to them. Or just more aware and savvy of the life journey that some people are on, and how it’s different (or similar) to theirs.

This is human connection – the reason we are here. Whatever your personality. Whatever your communication style, we all need communication with others to feel alive, to feel valued, heard; that we are here, and we make a difference to someone’s life.

If you are feeling brave, do the good, bad, ugly exercise on an area of your life that needs attention. Ask people close to you and people that you work with what they think of your communication style. Get it out there. See what you’re working with. Keep in mind that perception is in the eye of the perceiver, it doesn’t make it so, but you may uncover something you didn’t know, and once transparent a better connection might be forged.

All dirty laundry starts off dirty. Then, it gets sorted into manageable piles that won’t make a mess of another load, washed clean, dried and aired. A metaphor for great communication?


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