Pay Attention to What You Don’t Say

by | Sep 6, 2023 | blog | 0 comments

What you don’t say is just as important – actually, more important – than what you do say.

Recently, I went into a local business to purchase a pricey service.

I was working with the business owner, and we were at the point where he was asking me to sign on the dotted line. I hesitated.

I hesitated because I wanted a little bit of time to think about the sale, but being an excellent salesperson, he asked me what my hesitation was and when I might decide. I told him I would let him know within two hours; that I just needed a little alone time to consider the offer. He asked me why I couldn’t commit now.

I had noticed the big-beaded Catholic rosary necklace splayed out on his desk before, and although I didn’t say anything, it bothered me.

As an LGBT queer person, Catholic cultural artifacts sometimes don’t make me feel welcome, seen, valued, understood, or appreciated. Frankly, it feels like shit. I graduated from Seton Catholic Central High School, and I’m Latino, so you can bet Catholicism has always been in the background of my life. At this stage of my life, I try very hard to walk the line of respecting church tradition while condemning the policies and behaviors of exploitation, homophobia, sexism, and the repulsive sexual child abuse that myself and many of my contemporaries were subjected to… but that’s for another blog. Suffice it to say, the Catholic church has not always been great with the gay stuff.

So, I said to the business owner, “Honestly, I know it’s not your intention, but the rosary on your desk doesn’t exactly invite me to [do business with you]. Business owner to business owner, you’re hurting your sales by having that.”

At this point, I also noted the large crucifix (i.e., the Christian cross symbol with a suffering Jesus Christ image hanging on it) leaning against the wall of his office. I pointed at it and told him, “That doesn’t help either.”

He said, “Oh! We welcome everyone here – those are things I just brought from my car…” He continued, “Did you see our flags hanging in [the showroom]? They show how welcoming we are.”

Great, I thought, hopeful that he would show me some gay pride, or diversity celebration kind of flag, but no, the flags he pointed out showed more Christian imagery and messaging. Again, hardly welcoming. I told him so – again, biz owner to biz owner – “What are you doing, man? Don’t you want to bring in new customers?”

Bottom line, I ended up purchasing the service, and I’m confident my conversations with this biz owner will continue. I look forward to those – I mean, we all have blind spots. And if this is one for him, you bet I’ll be pointing it out. And if he thinks these things are so important to have prominently displayed and is comfortable with the impact they have on some new business, then god bless him. You do you, buddy – but you’re a very foolish business person.

I’m sharing this story with you because, as a leader and manager, your words are important. What you say to your people – including what is codified and written into your employee handbook, or charter, or whatever – is all important. Please, get that right! But when your actions and behaviors do not align with what you profess – what you are “selling” – then just know you may be cannibalizing all your efforts at being a leader.

There are two channels of communication whenever we are communicating with someone, and much like an iceberg, what you say (above-the-line communication) … can be very different from what you convey (below-the-line communication).

So, ask yourself – How can I reinforce what I say with specific nonverbal actions or demonstrations of aligning what I say with what I want to convey?

Here are some ideas…

  • Pick a Zoom background that somehow acknowledges you are open and welcoming – perhaps an LGBTQ+ Pride flag or a sign that says “Black Lives Matter.”
  • Consider reinforcing what you say with examples of how you activate and act on your values – “I always ask permission before giving feedback to someone.” “I always introduce myself and include my pronouns.” “I welcome your thoughts on how I can be more inclusive and welcoming.”
  • Be conscious of the “cultural artifacts” you demonstrate – the clothes you wear, the language you use in your policies and procedures, the visible book titles you have on your shelf…
  • Look at every choice point in your work as an opportunity to ask, “Am I being effective and inclusive with all the different individuals and populations I want to reach? How can I be even more clear in what I’m saying and more directive with who I want to reach and include?”
  • Interrupt and challenge your colleagues who may have blind spots to this. “I think you may want to consider _____ as a way of showing that you mean what you say – and that you say what you mean. Your message is a bit confusing.”

Of course, like my friend the local small business owner, you can say and do whatever feels right for you – that aligns and represents your values – but be responsible with those choices. Own your impact. It may be exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to say.

As Anais Nin reminds us, “We don’t see things as they are … we see them as we are.”

Pay attention to what you don’t say as much as you pay attention to what you do say. It all matters. Your people notice. So should you.

About Danny

With over 20 years experience in training and leadership development  — and holding an MBA and an MA in Organizational Development — Danny Ceballos has worked with organizations across the country to strengthen their effectiveness in leading and managing others through supervision+motivation best practices and strategies.