Communication Skills (Beware of the Dead Moose)

How the Unspoken Can Derail Relationships and Progress

By Steve McClatchy, President, Alleer Training & Consulting

Siloutte of Dead Moose Crossing


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A “dead moose,” according to sales trainer Steve McClatchy, is anything that festers.  He coined the odd phrase to denote a thorny issue—the type people fixate on and think about constantly while simultaneously avoiding.

McClatchy, president of Alleer Training & Consulting based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, proposes the following scenario:

“Imagine you’ve just arrived at a gala event and as you look around, no one is dancing, celebrating or having a good time.  As you look further, you see a large dead moose on the center of the dance floor.  You can tell by the smell, the rotting and the flies that it’s been there for awhile.  You wonder why no one is mentioning it or even looking at it.  You try to make eye contact with people to gauge what is going on but they avert their eyes and don’t want to discuss it.

The moose has everyone tense and is distracting them from meaningful conversation but they continue to let it fester and many opt to leave in silence and frustration rather than address it.  This mega event and all the money invested in it are about to be ruined by the dead moose.

As a late-comer maybe you should just keep your mouth shut and go on in bewilderment, creating awkward relationships with these people.

On the other hand, if you start asking questions perhaps you can shed some light on the issue that everyone is thinking about but afraid to address.  Maybe you could even get the moose removed and get on with the party.”

McClatchy says dead moose are stinking up offices throughout Corporate America.  Your salesperson returns from a meeting and says it “went great.”  Instead of asking whether she met with the top decision maker or if a second meeting has been scheduled, you pat her on the back—all the while fearing her eternal optimism will foil your forecast yet again.  Here’s another one: You invite your top salesperson to a strategy meeting, wondering the whole time if she’s headed for the competition.

In both cases, why not just come out and ask?  Many managers stay mum, hoping the issue will resolve itself, but effective managers muster the courage to cut through the rhetoric.

McClatchy proposes using a nonconfrontational segue: “I have a concern and I could be way out in left field with this, but do you mind if I ask you a question?” This signals that you’re about to get frank, without putting them on the defensive, McClatchy says. The upshot: You’ll find out what’s keeping your salesperson from closing deals—or perhaps what might prompt her to leave the company—and end up with a stronger relationship.

“The more honest, authentic and open your communication is with anyone the more effective that relationship will be and the greater the results produced,”  McClatchy says.  “It’s very difficult to have a great conversation with someone when what you are thinking and what you are saying are two completely different things,” he says.  “When what we are thinking and saying are one and the same there is an authentic level of communication that improves the relationship and builds trust.  If you have an issue with someone that you’re not addressing it’s probably doing more damage to your relationship than if you were to address it.  There is risk either way and I say leaders and great salespeople take the risk of addressing it,” he explains.

The concept is catching on with Alleer’s clients.  Mark Hansen, vice president and general manager of PPSI Communications, a Stamford, Connecticut–based company that provides communications services to the pharmaceutical industry, recently led a meeting about new business.  After training on the Dead Moose a few of his team members had concerns about whether the company had enough internal resources to deliver what had been sold, let alone future business. After a salesperson interjected, “I have a dead moose,” Hansen and his team discussed the concerns, then created a plan to tackle them.

“It’s human nature to avoid confrontation,” Hansen says. “The Dead Moose concept has given my team the skills, language and the permission to bring up issues that may be in the way of our success.  It has also helped our relationships.  That kind of communication is vital to progress.”

— Michele Marchetti

* This article has been slightly modified from its original publication.

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