Positive communications

by Philip Campbell, M.Ed, RCC

“Stewart” is a productive and successful partner. He has high standards for himself and equally high expectations of those who work for him. Unfortunately, legal assistants who are assigned to him do not seem to last long. They either ask for other assignments or they resign. Two have taken stress leave. Stewart is unapologetic. “The practice of law,” he says, “is not a picnic. Other people’s lives and the success of the firm depend on us doing our work effectively — with precision, with accuracy and in a timely manner. If I’m hard on people, it’s because the work is paramount.” Those who work for him say that he is constantly critical and seems angry a lot of the time. They see him as arrogant and believe that he is contemptuous of them. They spend a lot of time trying — usually unsuccessfully — to anticipate what his needs or objections might be and try to avoid contact with him as much as possible. Stewart is constantly frustrated at the turnover rate and complains that he never has time to get someone properly trained before they take off.

“Maureen” has two young teenagers and a husband who works as a retail store manager. Her children call her the judge. When she fights with them — which is most of the time she is home — they address her as “Your Honour,” which infuriates her even more. She used to correct them before she realized that this only encouraged their use of the term. She micromanages their homework and becomes very angry when their marks do not meet her standards. The more tender moments she had with them when they were younger are largely forgotten. Her husband is too smart to tell her he feels like he is in court, but is intimidated by her verbal ability. He feels like he is never permitted to win an argument. Maureen is considering leaving her marriage because, as she says, her husband has spaghetti where his backbone should be.

“Brian” has a strong belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. This serves him well with much of his clientele, but leads to frustration when his colleagues take a less-than-respectful approach with him. His attempts to move to a collaborative approach are met with competitiveness, aggression and sometimes contempt. He believes that they ignore him and chafes when they joke about how the tigers would make short work of him if he ever walked into a jungle. He feels like a child in his responses and protestations. While he knows he is competent as a lawyer, his colleagues’ antagonism makes him wonder if he’s in the right career.

Stewart, Maureen and Brian each have communication problems.

In the workplace today, as in every other part of our lives, our emotions automatically filter everything that we hear and see. We use our emotions, not logic, to assess:

  • Is the speaker a threat to my agenda and my needs?
  • Do I like and trust the speaker?
  • Does this information make a difference to me?
  • Is it reliable?

So let’s get back to Stewart, Maureen and Brian.

Stewart makes the assumption that content is everything and emotions are irrelevant. People should be able to get past their emotionality and do what needs to be done. However, he is blind to his own emotionality and the ways it affects the well-being and productivity of those who work for him and try to make him look good. He could listen and validate without ever giving any ground on quality and effectiveness. In the process he may occasionally find, perhaps to his amazement, that those working for him have contributions that may help him be more effective.

Mother and daughter drying dishesMaureen is caught in a cycle of frustration and contempt. At work she may believe that her approach is effective and, using a narrow scope of evaluation, that may well be true. But while she may be able to rationalize the negative impacts of her approach in her firm, she is finding it difficult to see any positives at home. If she does not change, she will continue to alienate her children and may lose her marriage. It will be difficult for her to turn the ship around. If she can learn to validate the needs of her family members and give them an attentive and supportive ear, two things may happen. First, she may realize that she gives nothing away by listening and gains trust at the same time. Second, she may find that other people — even children — have good and valid reasons for wanting what they want. You don’t have to agree with those reasons to see how they have validity to the other person. The magic combination of firmness and kindness is far more effective than harsh criticism and attempts at control.

Brian is on the other end of the spectrum from Maureen. Emotionally, he absorbs all the slings and arrows and is wounded. Therapy would probably help him develop a sense of self that is more independent of the rudeness of other people. He probably also needs to upgrade his assertiveness skills, learning how to pick his battles and how to challenge in a way that doesn’t feed into the pattern of aggression and counter-aggression that seems to be a part of his firm’s culture. His challenge will be to pick the genuine issues out of the bluster of his colleagues and address them in a professional manner. If he can keep his focus on task accomplishment instead of on how he is being treated, it will show in his body language, facial expressions and voice. It is this more than anything else that will encourage the others in his firm to see him, not as a challenge or a pushover, but as a colleague.

It would help Stewart, Maureen and Brian to realize that we evaluate the content of any communication on the basis of whether or not we like and respect the speaker. We like and respect people who acknowledge our needs and are up front about their own needs.

  • Our emotional filters are constantly evaluating all input — whether from our physical environment or from the communications of others — evaluating the input and matching it with our perceived needs.
  • Our emotional filters are always motivating us toward PHYSICAL action.

Anger will show itself first in the voice. The tone becomes aggressive and the volume increases.

This is part of the instinct to intimidate the other person.

Your arousal is often beyond your conscious awareness. We’ve all heard someone insisting, at the top of their voice, that they are not shouting.

Fear leads to an instinct to leave. You either just want to get out of there, or you freeze up completely.

  • Anger and fear will lead you to respond from instinct and not from strategy. This is biological programming.
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As your emotions rise, your ability to think clearly starts to shut down.

The same happens to the other person if you trigger their anger or fear.

You reduce the chances of the other person responding out of anger or fear if you can validate their needs as they have expressed them — not as you actually assess them to be.

  • Listen carefully.
  • Show an interest and ask clarifying questions.
  • Initially, do not agree or disagree. Save that kind of assessment for negotiation.
  • Be aware of what your body is communicating.

The tone of your voice should have some warmth.

Make eye contact without it being a locked in a stare.

A relaxed and engaged physical presence conveys that you are listening, interested and consider the other person’s input as being important.

  • When you show you care about the other person’s expressed needs, you increase the chances that they will care about yours. This allows you to find a common purpose and common solutions.

As you validate the needs expressed by others — even when they seem contradictory to your needs — you give nothing away, you increase the chances that they will listen to your needs and you become a much more effective communicator.

Interlock Employee and Family Assistance Program is a division of PPC Worldwide. Contact us at 604-431-8200 or 1-800-663-9099, or visit