Background-Foreground Communication

In my opinion, the one core skill that any person needs, be it in business or life in general, is the ability to clearly communicate their thoughts and views. After all, without clear communication, how can anything involving more than one individual progress? I wrote a recent piece on the critical importance of communication that discusses this.

In an effort to take this point to the next level, I want to share a concept that I learned years ago from some organizational behavior consultants working with my organization at the time on large-scale change initiatives. The concept, called “Background-Foreground Communication”, is intended to enable groups to accelerate their integration and, ultimately, their performance so as to achieve faster results.

The concept is rather simple in its description, but amazingly interesting in its execution. In a nutshell, “background communication” is non-verbal communication comprised mostly of thoughts in one’s head that exist during an interaction with another individual or group of people. For example, if you walk into a meeting with a work colleague and you just hung up from a phone call wherein you learned that a loved one had been injured, most likely what will be running through your head is your thoughts and concerns for your loved one and, understandably, not the topic at hand. “Foreground communication” is verbal communication, or simply, what we speak aloud and share with those around us. As I said, so far, conceptually simple.

The beauty of this concept is in the understanding that while background communication exists, productive dialog is impossible. In order to achieve productive discussion, it is imperative that background communication be brought into the foreground where it can be dealt with and properly set aside. Doing so enables effective communication to occur and, hopefully, objectives to be met. To be clear, it is not necessary to disclose the specific details of your background thoughts, but merely the existence of them which will preclude fertile discourse.

By way of another rudimentary example, imagine you are making a sales call to a prospect at Heinz and prior to going into the meeting, you unfortunately sat on a piece of chewing gum leaving an obvious stain on your pants. Now, when you begin to make your pitch, the prospective client is busy thinking in their head, “gee, I wonder if she knows that she has a stain on her pants?” Meanwhile, you are thinking in your head, “I hope they don’t see the stain on my pants” – the one that you so diligently tried to hide with your jacket. How well do you think this sales call is going to go?

Now imagine that you bring this “background” to the “foreground” right away. Perhaps some self-deprecating comment about how clumsy you are or how you purposely got a gum stain on your shirt to show them how their white vinegar product has alternative uses and can be marketed as a great chewing gum stain remover. Now, not only will this approach bring the background thoughts to the foreground allowing for a productive discussion, but it also opens up another viable discussion about a Heinz product that would likely not have happened otherwise.

Regardless how you choose to go about clearing the path for fruitful dialog, make sure you give yourself the best chances possible for a positive or productive outcome during each interaction by doing so. In fact, I have found that this approach can work rather well in personal relationships as well by creating a platform for a discussion with just the simple phrase to a colleague or loved one, “Can we chat? I have some 'background' that I’d like to discuss.”


Nina Nets It Out: When you really stop and think about it, clear communication is absolutely critical to achieving just about anything in business or in life. Be sure to not allow yourself to be distracted by “background” when having discussions. Pave the way for fruitful dialog by moving the background to the foreground. Nina Simosko's personal blog can be found at http://www.ninasimosko.com/.

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