Communicating Up and Down from the Middle


Throughout the day, we rely on various forms of communication to get our message across and obtain that which we need and want. Communication is an important life skill, essential to all relationships.

In “Business Communication for Success,” Scott McLean defines communication “as the process of understanding and sharing meaning. You share meaning in what you say and how you say it, both in oral and written forms.” Think about how you share meaning when you aren’t communicating or speaking up for yourself or others. Consider the message you send when you’re not an active participant in a two-way exchange.

On a recent outing with my husband to Adventure Park, after getting fitted in our harnesses and completing a safety briefing, Yamir and I approached the trail entrance and stared in awe at the aerial, forest-high configuration of ropes above us. As we climbed the ladder to the main platform, I shouted: “Lead the way, babe!” Unbeknownst to me, he chose a rope course I was not expecting nor prepared for, but I followed in pursuit of self-discovery anyway.

When I zipped through the first line, I watched my sunglasses float like a feather down to the underbrush below. Darn it! By the time I reached the second platform, Yamir was getting ready to make his way up to a higher level on the tree. We chatted and chuckled as he climbed, but my demeanor changed soon after he came back down so I could advance.

I ascended intently on the tree ladder and yelled: “Don’t talk to me!” when he asked if I was okay. After reaching the top and stepping onto the third platform, I could not bear to look down. Instead, I gazed ahead at the next challenge before me. Yamir called out again and offered words of encouragement, but I responded curtly: “I can’t talk right now…hold on…”

I stood atop that narrow platform alone and silent in my powerful vulnerability. As I adjusted the carabiners to remain securely attached to the safety line around the tree, I recognized my stress. My fingers and hands were unsteady, my breathing was shallow, and my clenched teeth caused soreness along the jaw line. I closed my eyes, inhaled profoundly, and was reminded of a handout received at a recent training offered by my organization’s learning institute entitled “Effectively Interacting with Others.”

In “Effective Communication: Improving Communication Skills in Your Work and Personal Relationships,” Lawrence Robinson, Dr. Jeanne Segal, and Melinda Smith explain “effective communication combines a set of skills including nonverbal communication, engaged listening, managing stress in the moment, the ability to communicate assertively, and the capacity to recognize and understand your own emotions and those of the person you’re communicating with.” In addition, Robinson, Dr. Segal and Smith list four common-sense steps for improving communication skills:

  1. Become an engaged listener
  2. Pay attention to nonverbal signals
  3. Keep stress in check
  4. Assert yourself

On the path to furthering my career and personal development, I am always interested in learning how to “deepen [my] connections to others and improve teamwork, decision making, and problem solving,” as noted by these three authors. Although I am not in a supervisory role yet, I have sovereignty over my work — and informally — mentor peers. I am a team player unafraid of making decisions and solving problems.

During the day, I communicate up and down to influence. Alongside like-minded team members, I’ll roll up my sleeves when called upon to strive for the execution of our organization’s mission and vision. If you find yourself “caught in the middle” like me and have taken the time to read this short post, I challenge you to read carefully through the resources highlighted here. Taking the time to “understand the other person” and listen to “emotions behind words” will not only enhance your communication skills, but build trust with your career and life partners.

Disclaimer: The opinions, references, and views expressed in this post are those of the guest blogger and do not reflect the official policy or position of the agency where she is currently employed.

Yesenia Flores Díaz is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Robert Macadaeg

I love the idea of “managing stress in the moment.” A slight re-phrasing that captures your example could be something like “thinking about the other person’s needs and emotional state when you personally are scared out of your wits.”

When I’m paying attention, I find myself managing fear throughout the work day – did I miss something, will I be welcomed in this meeting, did I miss a social cue and say the wrong thing, do I belong here, etc. etc.

As a younger man, I believed that I might conquer fear through daring deeds and such. I volunteered to serve as a paratrooper in the US Army, thinking that finding the wherewithal to jump out of airplanes would provide emotional armor sufficient to free me from fear.

Here’s the truth: the records say that I jumped 19 times, but I could swear it was twice that, probably because I was so terrified. Every. Single. Time.

What I learned, though, was that people who lost their fear became careless. They were the ones prone to making life-threatening mistakes.

Almost as bad were the people who failed to manage their fear. They went through every jump utterly blinded to their surroundings and the people alongside them. Unlike Yesenia, they couldn’t even manage a “Don’t talk to me” response if you spoke to them. They were the people so focused on self-preservation that you could not count on them in a crisis.

By observing some of my more courageous fellows, I discovered that the key to managing fear was not to ignore or be consumed by it, but rather to direct its power (for it is powerful) toward concern for others: help the fearless avoid foolish mistakes, guide the terrified down the correct path, in essence, pay attention to others and look for ways to contribute.

All of which is easy to say, until you find yourself standing in line on a bouncing airplane flying 120 miles-per-hour with the doors open, the jumpmasters calling out commands you can scarcely make out through the din, your parachute a mass of straps and buckles straining your shoulders and threatening to come undone, and your stomach, boiling from turbulence, ready to disgorge its contents at every move.

“Don’t talk to me” indeed.


Your description made my heart race, Robert. Thank you for the support and thoughtful commentary. Now you know when and if I am especially quiet in the office, what might be going through my mind…or not… 🙂