Working relationships at their best are productive, co-operative and even joyful. Frequently though, despite our best intentions they can be frustrating sources of conflict and misunderstanding.
Here are 4 ways that communication affects our relationships at work for better or worse, depending on the awareness and skills we bring.
1. Communication Style
Some colleagues and clients are easier to talk to than others. When communication seems effortless with another person the chances are it’s because we share a similar communication style with them.
We’ve all got a communication style comfort zone that we automatically operate from. There are 4 broad styles, Promoter, Controller, Facilitator and Analyst.
Knowing which style you have and learning how to talk in the style of another person with them will close the distance between you, minimising frustration, misunderstanding and distrust.
2. Active listening
Have you ever worked with someone who talks a lot about what’s going on with them but rarely checks in to see how you’re doing? Contrast the quality of that sort of working relationship with one where your colleague does take an interest in your challenges and achievements. Which relationship grows you and motivates you more? The answer is obvious.
When someone takes the time to listen to us, to give us the space to finish our sentences and then ask us follow-up questions that delve deeper into what we have just said, we feel valued by them. And it’s the working relationships in which the participants feel mutually valued that are the most productive ones.
Play a game next time you speak to a colleague. Try to avoid using the word ‘I’ and give your self 5 points for every ‘How, what and why’ question you ask them in response to what they’re saying. Invite them to play the same game next time they talk to you.
3. Inflammatory language
When the workplace is a source of stress, 9 times out of 10 it’s not the work that is the problem, it’s certain people that we work with. When we experience conflict with colleagues, a big determinant of that conflict is our own inability to see the role that we ourselves are playing in keeping the conflict alive. We are often so focused on the failures of the other person and how they are making things difficult that we overlook the only half of the equation that we have any real control over; our own actions. Specifically, the language we chose to use.
Practicing Non-Violent Communication weans us off the habit of using ‘inflammatory language’ – language the carries implicit judgment or blame. It helps us to give people objective feedback aimed at a behavioural level rather than identify level, rather bombarding them with our emotionally loaded opinions of what they should and shouldn’t have done. And importantly, it enables us to take responsibility for our own emotional reaction to the situation rather than making it all about them.
When we feel under attack we get defensive. Listening stops, progress stops and conflicts don’t get resolved. Non Violent Communication takes the ‘attack’ out of our language use and builds foundations for more understanding and respectful relationships with even the most challenging colleagues.
It’s nice to be nice and most us like to be liked. This can sometimes backfire and negatively impact on our relationships at work though. Our desire to be seen as agreeable often causes us to agree to taking things on that we don’t actually have the time or headspace to do. If we’re in the habit of doing this, it runs the risk of storing up resentment in our work relationships. We resent others for asking too much of us and the they resent us for letting them down when we commit to more obligations than we can properly fulfil. So learn to skilfully say no. Here’s how:
i) Start with their name. Studies show that we experience brain activation when someone says our name so we tend to listen really carefully to whatever is said next.
ii) Acknowledge their request. This shows that you have really listened to what they have asked of you and signals respect.
iii) ‘I’m going to say no.’ This is simultaneously assertive and emotionally considerate use of language; you are linguistically ‘softening the blow’ of the no by structuring it this way.
iv) Give one good single reason why. Less is more here. More than one reason will start to sound like excuses.
v) Offer an alternative, if possible. This sends the message that you are supportive, and the support has to be on terms that also suit you.
Practice this technique to build and maintain healthy, authentic and boundaried workplace relationships.
Whatever the communication skills are that we want to develop, the key is to take ourselves out of auto-pilot and into an awareness of the big shifts we can achieve in our work relationships with small changes to how we talk and listen.