Explicit and Implicit Communication

by lionhearted13 min read21st Mar 201822 comments



I write an essay every Thursday. Every so often, one seems to really resonate with people.

The piece I just wrote on the nature of explicit and implicit communication both got an enthusiastic reader response and seems directly relevant to a number of the projects and explorations people are doing here, so I'm bringing it over here.

Two points worth mentioning —

1. I take, I think, a relatively fair stance on the tradeoffs and benefits between implicit and explicit communication. But some people are heavily invested in explicit communications models, almost to the identity level, and might not like what they read. I just ask you to bring an open mind — I think the examples of implicit communication here are all clear and convincing cases where explicit can underperform.

2. It was written for a more general audience, hence a different mix of anecdote, different levels of rigor in definition, etc. I made some stylistic choices where I err on the side of persuasive writing, style, and poetics over more technical and higher-precision definitions and epistemology. Had I written this for LW to start, all the language and some of the reasoning chains would be shifted about 20 degrees or so — but nevertheless, I think the general points here are really, really important. Don't let style or pedantry get in the way of understanding for you here if you can help it.

I decided to post this once I got a lot of reader replies like this —

"Think this is one of the highest quality and most insightful pieces you've written - huge amount of original and actionable content that helps build some structure for a vague set of intuitions I've had for a while."

Ok, here we go —

Unity: Communication


“A second type of simple sabotage requires no destructive tools whatsoever and produces physical damage, if any, by highly indirect means. It is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a noncooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit. Making a faulty decision may be simply a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another. A non-cooperative attitude may involve nothing more than creating an unpleasant situation among one’s fellow workers, engaging in bickerings, or displaying surliness and stupidity. […]

Acts of simple sabotage are occurring throughout Europe. An effort should be made to add to their efficiency, lessen their detectability, and increase their number. Acts of simple sabotage, multiplied by thousands of citizen-saboteurs, can be an effective weapon against the enemy. Slashing tires, draining fuel tanks, starting fires, starting arguments, acting stupidly, short-circuiting electric systems, abrading machine parts will waste materials, manpower, and time. Occurring on a wide scale, simple sabotage will be a constant and tangible drag on the war effort of the enemy.”

Before the Normandy Invasion in June 1944, Nazi Germany had occupied most of Western Europe. Many civilians of occupied countries were forced to participate in building the armaments and supplies for the Nazi war machine.

Around this time, some members of the American intelligence community realized that many of the citizens of occupied countries disliked the Nazis, but lacked an understanding of how to disrupt their affairs without risking their lives.

Thus, in January 1944, the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor of the CIA — put out the “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.”

Many of the suggestions are straightforward and as you’d expect — ranging from mundane things like failing to do regular maintenance on a machine or working slowly, to quickly-runnable disruptive procedures like slashing the tires on an automobile or removing the filter from an industrial machine.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the document — the interesting part is where it outlines how to slow down, disrupt, and paralyze internal communications of an organization —

“(11) General Interference with Organizations and Production

(a) Organizations and Conferences 

 (1) Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

(2) Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.

(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.

(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

(7) Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”



Communication is critical for establishing high-unity teams — but very few topics have so much explicitly bad information publicly available as how to communicate.

Certainly, we’d all benefit from some in-depth study, reflection, and practice on how to be better communicators — but there’s a reason we opened this piece with an excerpt from a 1944 guide to sabotage.

To put it bluntly — many modern attempts at better communication inadvertently create conditions that actually sabotage an organization’s effectiveness and unity.

Again, do remember that the following remark was from a guide to sabotage

“Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.”

This is the peril of communications — we want to get all the relevant details on the table, we want to communicate effectively, but there’s few places where it’s more possible to get bogged-down as ineffective communications.

Establishing good communications is essential — just as essential is reducing the type of communication that explicitly hurts the mission and team. This is the needle we’ll attempt to thread in this issue.



Let’s dive right into guidance.

The book Difficult Conversations by the Harvard Negotiation Project has an excellent and highly productive conversational framework to learn.

The whole book is worth reading, but the core lesson is that in any given conversation with friction in it, there’s actually three conversations happening —

“In studying hundreds of conversations of every kind we have discovered that there is an underlying structure to what’s going on, and understanding this structure, in itself, is a powerful first step in improving how we deal with these conversations. It turns out that no matter what the subject, our thoughts and feelings fall into the same three categories, or “conversations.” And in each of these conversations we make predictable errors that distort our thoughts and feelings’ and get us into trouble.


1. The “What Happened?” Conversation. Most difficult conversations involve disagreement about what has happened or what should happen. Who said what and who did what? Who’s right, who meant what, and who’s to blame? […]

2. The Feelings Conversation. Every difficult conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings. Are my feelings valid? Appropriate? Should I acknowledge or deny them, put them on the table or check them at the door? What do I do about the other person’s feelings? […]

3. The Identity Conversation. This is the conversation we each have with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well-being? Our answers to these questions determine in large whether we feel “balanced” during the conversation, or whether we feel off-center and anxious.””

A summary here wouldn’t do justice to the book — it goes through 350 pages exploring the different levels conversations happen on, looks at dozens of real-world examples of how this plays out in the workplace, and how conflict can happen across levels.

But once learned, it’s a framework that tremendously helps in navigating conversations.

For instance, if a manager at a company felt like an employee was writing poor-quality memos and recommended the employee take a course on business writing, it might look like this —

1. What Happened: the manager assessed the employee’s writing was poor and recommended a writing course. The employee might or might not agree their writing was poor.

2. Feelings: the manager might be a mix of frustrated but also excited to see the employee’s development. The employee might feel, simultaneously, like their manager doesn’t care about them and feels insulted by it.

3. Identity: the manager might not even think about this level, assessing the writing quality as just a professional skill to improve and not a big deal. The employee might see it as a display they’re not competent or stupid.

You can wind up, then, having very ineffective conversations that look like this —

Manager: Hey, I think your writing is holding you back. I’d like you to take a professional writing course.

Employee (thinking, “Does the manager think I’m stupid? Am I stupid?”): Uhh, ok, is my writing that bad?

It might be a mistake for the manager to just reply factually there: “Well, yeah, it is.” The question “Is my writing that bad?” isn’t actually asking about the writing; it’s a (poorly phrased) attempt to clarify who they are and how they should feel about things.

A more effective response might be,

Manager: You’ve got a bunch of terrific skills and you’re doing great here — it’s fantastic to have you on the team. I think you can level-up your writing and it’ll help you. How do you feel about taking the course?

That’s a relatively straightforward example, but it can get quite nuanced and subtle. Many times, if you point out something that’s factually true and ask a person to change their behavior, they’ll get aggravated or defensive — again, a conversation that’s happening on different levels. It’s very easy for Person A to think a conversation is happening on a factual cause-and-effect level, whereas Person B is engaging defensively on the basis of feelings and identity.

Read Difficult Conversations soon if this isn’t intuitive to you already, and read it sooner or later anyways even if it is. It’s one of the best books on how to make explicit communication go better.



“I arrived at my sixth RV [rendezvous point] in the late afternoon and called out my color and number as soon as the sitter looked up at my approach.

“Roger, Green Six. Go across the road to those points, take off your rucksack, and sit down.” He pointed to a clump of pines about thirty meters away.

I stood there uncertainly for a second and asked, “Am I finished?”

He merely repeated, “Go across the road to those points, take off your rucksack, and sit down.” He said it in a level, calm voice as if I had never caused him to repeat his statement. No exasperation, no snideness, no emphasis, just the statement of instructions.

“Right,” I said, as I moved away. Just do as you’re told and don’t ask questions unless the instructions are unclear.”

— Command Sergeant Major Eric L. Haney, Inside Delta Force, 2002

“Bruce [Lee] had me up to three miles a day, really at a good pace. We’d run the three miles in twenty-one or twenty-two minutes. Just under eight minutes a mile. So this morning he said to me “We’re going to go five.” I said, “Bruce, I can’t go five. I’m a helluva lot older than you are, and I can’t do five.” He said, “When we get to three, we’ll shift gears and it’s only two more and you’ll do it.” I said “Okay, hell, I’ll go for it.” So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four minutes, and then I really begin to give out. I’m tired, my heart’s pounding, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” –and we’re still running-”if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.” He said, “Then die.”

John Little

I’m a believer in explicit communication.

I’ll say it again —

I’m a believer in explicit communication.

Explicit communication is marvelous.

It’s beneficial.

It’s productive.

You should get skilled at it.

I’m a believer in explicit communication.

But not entirely.

We explored Haney’s experience joining the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force in Unity #4: Selection Procedures. It was a hellishly difficult experience — intentionally.

Now, this is where communication gets hard. If we look at the three levels of conversation described in Difficult Conversations, here’s what’s going on —

Delta Force selection cadre (factual instruction): I’ve registered your time and number. Go across the road, take your pack off, and sit down.

Haney (all three levels): Factually, is there more to do? How am I doing, by the way? Could you reassure me, perhaps? Am I doing well?

Delta Force selection cadre (intentionally ignoring feelings and identity): Go across the road, take your pack off, and sit down.

Isn’t that curious?

Something is going on there.

And Delta Force became one of the highest-unity teams in all of history. They built an incredibly professional, resilient, unreasonably effective force. Surely they know what they’re doing.

I’m a believer in explicit communication — but not entirely.

How did John Little do on the rest of his run with Bruce Lee?

“… So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four minutes, and then I really begin to give out. I’m tired, my heart’s pounding, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” –and we’re still running-”if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.” He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles. Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it.”

A different case to be sure, but something similar to Delta Force, no?

And the rest of the story —

“Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to [Lee] about it. I said, you know, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.””

I’m a believer in explicit communication — but not entirely.



As far as works on explicit communication go, Difficult Conversations is exceptional. I think it’s the best on the topic. But y’know, I went through the entire book for the fourth time for this piece, and you know what’s not in there?

When explicit communication is counterproductive.

This is my general issue with high-idealism, quasi-utopian frameworks of communication and dialog.

I think there’s a lot of value in developing explicit communication skills, and communicating explicitly far more than most people do.

But, curiously enough, when you look at the most effective and high-unity teams, they don’t tend to run on so-called compassionate forms of communication.

In my original drafting of this piece, I was going to look at a number of the premises, tradeoffs, and good and bad points of things like Nonviolent Communication and Holocracy, which both have some marvelous ideas, are well-worthy of study, and offer a lot… but which have some gigantic holes in them.

But you know, both of them attract levels of almost fanatic devotion to them, and not having the time or inclination for engaging in a potential holy war, I set that aside.

I would simply submit the following type of statement from NVC without commentary —

“Felix, when I see socks under the coffee table I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the room that we share in common. Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”

I’ve studied both NVC and Holocracy to, I think, a fair degree of understanding. I found some gems in both of them; they’re worth review at some point if you’re interested in the topic. I’d recommend starting with Difficult Conversations which is probably the most straightforward and least idealistic guide to explicit communication, but I believe that explicit communication alone isn’t the answer — and is often counterproductive.



What do we make of Bruce Lee’s remark to his friend he’s running with?

John: Bruce, if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.

Bruce: Then die.

On first glance, this is a rather harsh remark — Bruce doesn’t care about his friend’s feelings and he makes an incisive dismissive remark.

But the second order effect is that John finished the run.

The third order effect is that John learned about transcending his limits and became a stronger human.

What do we make of the Delta Force cadre member ignoring Sergeant Haney’s question about whether he was finished for the day?

The first-order effect was, again, dismissiveness.

But the second-order and higher-order effects were encouraging team members to focus exclusively on the moment at hand and next instructions, to not worry about the future and things outside their immediate control, and which led eventually to more independent-minded and effective soldiers.

This is where, I reckon, explicit communication falls down.

This issue of Unity is fully going against a mainstream trend, and I’m fully aware of that — the Western world is moving towards more explicit communication, all the time, and towards a constant validation of feelings.

Which if a given set of feelings are counterproductive to the mission? To the individual? To the team?

The mainstream view in 2018 is that this is an impossibility — that all feelings are relevant — or at least, that not expressing those feelings will have serious detrimental consequences later.

This has not been my experience, and it doesn’t seem to be true when studying the historical record. There are times when engaging with feelings and identity are critically important to function well, and there’s times when feelings and identity are counterproductive epiphenomenon that should be dismissed.

In my experience, it’s very hard to know what feelings should be engaged with and which should not. Oftentimes, ignoring a nagging irrational feeling just makes it go away — and ignoring it enough times means it fades and dies off, leaving you a more robust and strong individual.

Other times, the feelings get louder. It’s a complex topic and often hard to get right. And, as Haney mentioned in Inside Delta Force, you have to be verycareful around “the fine line between hard-ass and dumb-ass” — with athletic training or military training, people die if you cross that line in the wrong direction. In more mundane everyday work affairs, it still has negative consequences that we should be wary of.

Nevertheless, one of a leader’s jobs is to set the culture of an organization — how relevant are our feelings? How relevant is pain? How important is it to address if a team member feels inadequate and insecure?

The historical record is very clear that the most elite organizations do not constantly engage with feelings and personal narratives — great cultures navigate the mix of explicit communication to really dive deep into the whole fabric of thought and communication, and implicit communication and subtextto set standards and encourage people to grow stronger.

Surely, Bruce Lee’s “Then die” is a harsh remark — but would it have been better for him to say to John, in the middle of the home stretch of their run, “John, I understand and hear you that you’re experiencing pain and you’re concerned about your health, and yet I feel sad that our shared run might not complete if you stop now. Would you be willing to continue running?”



“When Xerxes wrote again, “Hand over your arms,” King Leonidas wrote in reply, “Come and take them.””

— Plutarch’s Moralia, Sayings of the Spartans, 1st Century AD

The word “Laconic” comes from the Spartans; their homeland was Laconia — it’s a remark incredibly potent in its brevity.

Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedon, threatened the Spartans such —

“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The Spartan reply was one word —


That single word — “If” — communicates so much more than any long declarations or statements or explicit communication ever could.

Bruce Lee’s “Then die” is certainly laconic — and this is something that most explicit communication sadly lacks.

Explicit communication is expensive. Its proponents — in fact, I’m one of its proponents — would argue that it’s usually worth it, and less expensive than communicating ineffectively.

But the 1944 OSS sabotage manual included a lot of recommendations to engage in explicit communication excessively and pointlessly. Again — for sabotage.

Sometimes the best communication isn’t words at all, but actions — a demonstrated lack of caring about one’s own emotions and hardships gets picked up by the rest of the team. Many of our emotions are just early warning signals about uncomfortable activities, and we can transcend them over time and with practice. Often a laconic phrase is better than a long-winded piece of explicit communication, and often demonstrated action is better than any word at all.



Communication is difficult — over time, one should become skilled at explicit communication. It’s often among the most critical skills to keep a team performing at the highest levels, and very few of us do it automatically. Studying and practicing a work like Difficult Conversations goes a long way towards becoming a better explicit communicator.

But explicit communication has its limits — it’s often, counterintuitively, more compassionate in the long term to be harsh, unyielding, unaffected. This of course requires that you have good Selection Procedures and you selected team members with the right Default Inclinations and Instincts — perhaps even a majority of people would not and could not handle this type of environment. (With that said, though, Chinese parents seem to do a lot of this — and their children seem to grow into be admirable high-fortitude adults at a very high rate.)

I’ll leave you with a last thought from Friedrich Nietzsche that I believe is true. Chew on it some as you think about what type of culture you want to build —

“What? The final aim of science should be to give man as much pleasure and as little displeasure as possible? But what if pleasure and displeasure are so intertwined that whoever wants as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wants to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ must also be prepared for ‘grief unto death’? And that may well be the way things are! […] Even today you still have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, in short, lack of pain — and socialists and politicians of all parties fundamentally have no right to promise any more than that — or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of a bounty of refined pleasures and joys that hitherto have seldom been tasted. Should you decide on the former, i.e. if you want to decrease and diminish people’s susceptibility to pain, you also have to decrease and diminish their capacity for joy. With scienceone can actually promote either of these goals! So far it may still be better known for its power to deprive man of his joys and make him colder, more statue-like, more stoic. But it might yet be found to be the great giver of pain! — And then its counterforce might at the same time be found: its immense capacity for letting new galaxies of joy flare up!”

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882

Of course, do be careful not to cross that fine line from hard-ass to dumb-ass — as Haney put it. Leadership is hard. Unity is hard. Most people do not get it right and never really experience the greatest heights of it. But it’s so beautiful and joyful to behold that I believe it’s worth striving for.

To leave the piece on an admittedly completely unfair note —

“Felix, when I see socks under the coffee table I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the room that we share in common. Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”

“On the morning of the third and final day of the battle, Leonidas, knowing they were being surrounded, exhorted his men, “Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hell.””

Yours, truly,

Sebastian Marshall
Editor, TheStrategicReview.net