by Rick Brenner
Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. A textbook example of the snatchback can be found in the closing statement of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at his impeachment trial: "I want to apologize to you for what happened, but I can't because I don't think — because I didn't do anything wrong." (see "Rod Blagojevich impeachment trial closing statements," at WikiSource) In this form, he begins by delivering what sounds like an apology, but then he withdraws it. Prior to the withdrawal, he leads the listener into an apology experience, which cannot be fully undone by the withdrawal. Photo by Erik Abderhalden.
For protection, to express contempt, or to accomplish by subterfuge what one cannot accomplish openly, we mask the true meaning of our communications. The masking technique depends on the message and the audience, but the practice is rarely constructive. It usually makes or expresses trouble for the relationship.
Here are some examples of techniques for masking messages.
- Backdoor bragging
- Example: "It's painful for me to attend her meetings, because my own are so much more orderly and effective."
- This isn't merely a description of pain; rather, it is a claim about the quality of the speaker's meetings. But the claim is buried in a subordinate clause, where it's far less intrusive.
- Non-apology apologies
- Example: "If what I said offended anyone, I'm very sorry."
- This isn't a true apology, because it doesn't concede that what was said was offensive; it dissociates the speaker from what was said; and it isn't directed to anyone specifically. It's simply an expression of regret. See "Demanding Forgiveness," Point Lookout for June 18, 2003, for more.
- Implicit accusations
- Example: "You can join the team if you promise not to pout if your ideas aren't accepted."
- If the accusation had been stated directly, it would have read: "I've noticed that you pout if your ideas are not accepted. You can join the team if you promise to behave." The implicit form creates an urge to refute it, which risks validating the claim. See "Dealing with Implied Accusations," Point Lookout for January 10, 2001, for more.
- Masked messages usually
make or express trouble
for the relationship
- Damning with faint praise
- Example: "Your leadership lately has been very useful."
- This message begins in the right direction, but ends with a dull thud. For extra thud, the speaker might pause before "lately" or after "very" as if to be searching for sufficiently neutral words.
- Backdoor damning
- Example: "On project after project, he has demonstrated an outstanding ability to conjure up plausible-sounding explanations for even the most complicated blunders."
- Here the critique is hidden behind what appears to be praise.
- Fake questions
- Example: "If you were to take responsibility for sorting out this mess, how would you do it?"
- By seducing the listener with a fake hypothetical question, the speaker hopes to nudge the listener toward a commitment to take responsibility for a mess.
- Example: "I'd like very much to offer you a promotion…but it had to go to another department."
- A snatchback happens when the speaker begins with a welcome pronouncement, but ends by explaining something else or providing an excuse. The message recipient experiences the positive pronouncement for a second or two — an experience that is never truly erased.
Message masking is a habit for some; a deliberate choice for others. Both are corrosive to relationships. Noticing the pattern in the communications of others can help you reduce it in your own. Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work
- Virtual Communications: Part I
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- Virtual Communications: Part III
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part III of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- How to Eliminate Meetings
- Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could change our lives.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
- In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
- On Facilitation Suggestions from Meeting Participants
- Team leaders often facilitate their own meetings, and although there are problems associated with that dual role, it's so familiar that it works well enough, most of the time. Less widely understood are the problems that arise when other meeting participants make facilitation suggestions.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
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