Diplomats, mediators and leaders of all sorts make extensive use of backchannels. They know that the expressive needs of individuals are sometimes at odds with the goal of finding face-saving solutions.
Imagine that you are at a party with five other close friends. In the course of a conversation with the group, the host mentions that he is pleased to have found a new employee to work in his small business. The new hire who he identifies lives in the same small town, and is known to you and some of the other guests. You also know that others who have worked with the employee have reported that he is an unreliable worker, showing up late and sometimes making careless mistakes. Should you say something to the host?
- Tell the host immediately and in the midst of the gathering that they have probably made a mistake in extending the offer of a job?
- Say nothing?
- Follow-up privately with the host, mentioning the doubts that you have?
Most of us have been in this situation, where there is no perfect answer. The first option of saying something immediately in the presence of all is what many would see as an obligation of good friendship. Friends save friends from making bad mistakes. The sooner, the better. In addition, an opinion aired within a group is more easily disputed or affirmed by others who are present: a kind of base-line value built into American patterns of more open communication.
Some, though probably not many, would say nothing, believing that both the host and the new worker deserve the advantage of a clean slate. After all, the employee is being judged partly on hearsay, and in advance of the record they might establish in their new job.
And some would choose the last choice, what I call the backchannel option. They might wait until later to tell the host privately that the new hire could be problematic. This option protects the host from the embarrassment of being asked to publicly disown the positive view they just stated. And it allows a little more time to assess the reliability of the pessimistic view.
It’s often a good idea to opt for a backchannel, where a message can be focused and private. On the solid premise that we need to carefully pick our moments, it can make sense to hold back in a group setting when we have the awkward task of telling someone that they have made a mistake.
Backchannels have many advantages, and at least one disadvantage. The disadvantage is that they deprive the truth-teller of their moment in the spotlight. It can be hard to not parade our wisdom before a gathered group. Though this may seem like a selfish and frivolous concern, it’s good to remember that most of us are fulfilled and affirmed by the display of what we regard is a superior understanding of what’s really going on. This kind of “showboating” is probably why the concept of “forbearance” had to be invented for the rest of us.
Aside from our expressive needs, the advantages of backchannels are even more consequential. Communication out of the public eye is useful as a way to save the “face” of another. A person can be corrected or warned without carrying the additional burden of what can seem like an unnecessary humiliation. Small potatoes, perhaps. But in the actual situation described above, the enthusiastic employer was quite embarrassed by the less than positive response that came from his friends. He clearly felt a need to honor a commitment he had already made, obviously wishing he’d said nothing. And it’s easy to see why. Unravel this small moment a little more and it’s apparent that a public conversation about a potential mistake could be construed as an implicit judgment about the host’s competence. With backchannels, most of this baggage doesn’t accumulate. There is a better chance to preserve the friendship that exists between the host and the doubters.
Diplomats, mediators and leaders of all sorts make extensive use of backchannels. They know that the expressive needs of individuals in groups are sometimes at odds with the task of finding face-saving solutions. The challenge for all of us is to resist our first impulse to take ownership of a conversation on the quick hunch that we have superior insights.