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4 Things Organizations Can Learn from a Silent Marriage

Also published on LinkedIn

I just came across an article about a married couple in Japan, where for more than 20 years, the husband has not talked to his wife.

At first glance is just seems silly, petty, and frankly hard to believe. However, as I read the short article, that educator’s tingle of a metaphor came over me. This couple was like too many organizations. They, despite longevity and the outward appearance of a strong relationship, had a serious communication problem.

Lack of Communication in Organizations

Even though we know we need to communicate, with our employees, our clients & customers, and other stakeholders; many organizations will also admit that they are not doing a great job of it.

There are a multitude of reasons why you need to have excellent internal and external communication systems:

  • To educate employees on organizational goals and strategies

  • To foster collaboration

  • To engage and inform customers of the benefits of your products or services

  • To build and maintain relationships

  • To assess quality as well as quantity of deliverables

  • Et cetera, Et cetera…

Yet, this marriage is a metaphor of four examples of how some organizations are failing when it comes to effective communication.

1. Gripe Mode vs. Goal Mode: Sometimes You Stay in Gripe Mode Too Long

One of the reasons the husband gave for not talking to his wife was that he was jealous of the attention she was paying to the children and not him. Okay, this is very common in marriages. But can you imagine if most husbands gave into that jealousy in this way?

In my workshop and keynote, The Power of CARE™, under the category of choices, I talk about making the choice to be in Gripe Mode vs. Goal Mode. At one time or another, we all have things that we don’t like about the person or persons with whom we have a relationship. Having the gripe is not the problem. It’s the duration of the time you stay in gripe mode that is the problem.

If we truly care about said relationship(s), we eventually – hopefully quickly before too much damage is done -- move from gripe mode to goal mode. And one of the first strategies one utilizes when one makes the choice to be in goal mode is…


This husband was clearly in gripe mode for waaaaay too long. Looking at this marriage, you think that is crazy! Twenty years! How could he not talk to his wife for 20 years? However, many organizations have been making this same mistake for just as long.

Maybe upper management has a long-held gripe about the front-line staff. Maybe the Board is not fully in love with the CEO, but for whatever reason won’t make the move to replace her. Maybe the company has a love-hate relationship with its customers. All of these scenarios result in bad communication.

People stop communicating well with the person or group they are griping over.

Upper management doesn’t communicate the rationale and thought-process behind their decisions to the front-line staff, and then wonder why they don’t have the buy-in they expected. The CEO feels she doesn’t have the support of the Board and starts planning her exit; or worse, just becomes a placeholder employee, and in the meantime goals are not being met. The company forgets why customers came to them in the first place and their products and services no longer reflect that relationship; and they lose customers.

Lesson learned: Decide if you want to be in Goal Mode or Gripe Mode. If you choose Goal Mode, communication is the key to continuous improvement and maintaining quality relationships.

2. Just Because You Aren’t “Saying” Anything Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t Communicating.

Notice above I said communicating well. We are always communicating, even when we are not talking. Sometimes that lack of words is far more telling. Many have harshly judged a politician or corporate leader for what they failed to say. One may have a variety of reasons for not saying anything. However, those on the other side, will create a narrative in the vacuum, usually believing it is because you just don’t care.

One of the exchanges in the couple’s eventual conversation struck me. (Otou is the husband)

Otou said: “I was kind of... jealous. I was sulking about it.”

“There's no going back now I guess.” [said his wife]

As my mother-in-law is fond of saying, “You think about that.”

We hear the phrase; “Some things are better left unsaid.” But what happens when everything is left unsaid? And for a very long period of time. There’s no going back now to all of those missed conversations. Those missed opportunities. There are just too many.

Yet, that lack of communication does say something. It says you stopped caring about the relationship. Your pride, or your hurt feeling, or whatever the reasons for your silence; they meant more than the relationship.

Lesson Learned: Sometimes your silence tells a louder story than your words would have. You can’t go back and take back what you didn’t say. Better to at least say something and negotiate an understanding, than to say nothing and confirm all of their negative suspicions.

3. Just Because There Are Deliverables, Doesn’t Mean All Is Right Within the Organization.

The couple in the article had a son who is eighteen years old, but the husband has not been verbally communicating with the wife for twenty years. How did that happen?!

Obviously, in the midst of this verbal communication blockade, there was still a level of “marital activity” that resulted in children. You must ask yourself, what has been the impact on these children? They have not grown up observing a married couple who communicates well. Quite the opposite. Therefore, how has that impacted their ability to have quality relationships themselves?

In an organization, we are judged by the quantity and quality of our deliverables. The former requires merely a count: how many clients served, how many widgets produced. While the latter requires more and greater communication, over a longer period, to truly have an accurate assessment. We see that work is getting done and products are continuing to be made. However, what is the quality of those goods and services? What are the long-term effects? What is the quality of the internal processes that created them? Is there room for improvement?

Lesson learned: You must know how the sausage is made. It’s not just about the end product, but the processes and systems as well. It’s about quality as well as quantity.

4. Sometimes It Takes a Third Party to Get the Ball Rolling

So how did this couple finally have a conversation? The young son, now eighteen, decided enough was enough. He and his siblings had grown up without seeing their parents have a meaningful conversation. He took it upon himself to contact a local television station and they set up a meeting in the park where the couple had had their first date. I guess they hoped the sentimentality of the park would help the situation.

As their children looked on from a distance, the couple finally had a conversation.

It took a third party, the television station, to get something to happen that should have happened a long time ago. This occurs so often in organizations. Everyone can see things need to change. In fact, you probably talk about it daily. Yet, no one moves to be that change agent.

Then finally, someone says, “Maybe if we bring someone from the outside, we can make this better.”

Anyone who is a parent or a teacher has had that experience where you have been saying the same thing for years, but somehow some else says the exact same thing and suddenly your child or student has an epiphany and now “gets it!”

You can get upset, or you can realize this is a common phenomenon and be grateful. And take credit and pride in being the one who facilitated the communication, albeit by proxy.

Lesson learned: Sometimes is takes an internal person to bring in an external person to get parties to communicate.

What do you think? Do you have another communication lesson to be learned from this couple? How about an example you know that fits one of the lessons above? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

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